Situation in the Red Sea

– in the House of Commons at 3:29 pm on 24 January 2024.

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Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence 3:29, 24 January 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the situation in the Red Sea.

Last week at Lancaster House, I set out why we are living in a far more dangerous world. Members will need no reminding that we are dealing with multiple conflicts at once: Russia has increased the intensity of its attacks on Ukraine; the appalling Hamas atrocities of 7 October have brought conflict to that region; and, most recently of all, international shipping is now being threatened by Houthi proxies aided and abetted by Iran.

Since November, there have been more than 40 attacks on commercial vessels across the region. It is salutary to think that it has been 30 years since the maritime law was codified in the United Nations convention on the law of the sea. Some 168 nations back the UNCLOS treaty. The UK signed it, Yemen acceded to it, and even Iran is a signatory to it. There is a good reason why it has achieved such broad support. All nations rely on global trade, and none more so than the UK, given that a full 90% of UK commerce comes to us by sea.

Some 12% of international trade passes through the Red sea every single year, amounting to more than $1 trillion-worth of goods. In addition, 8% of global grain trade, 12 % of seaborne traded oil and 8% of the world’s liquefied natural gas all pass through this ancient seaway. Perhaps even more astonishing is that 40% of the goods that are traded between Europe and Asia go through the Red sea.

Sadly, the Houthis’ unlawful and callous attacks are putting all that trade at risk. Twelve international companies have been forced to suspend the passage through the Red sea because of the attacks. The number of vessels transiting Bab al-Mandab was 54% below the level observed in the previous year, and diverting vessels around the Cape of Good Hope has had a crippling impact, not only adding days of delay to vital deliveries but driving up international shipping costs to prohibitive levels. Some reports suggest that shipping costs are up by 300%.

What these Iran-backed Houthi pirate thugs forget is that it is the least well-off nations and people who suffer the most from their illegal actions, starting with Yemen itself, where almost all food comes by sea. At times like these, nations must stand up. Attacks on Red sea shipping automatically make this a global problem.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his recent speech. According to the House of Commons Library, there are 12 Iranian proxy forces in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Yemen, so this is not just about the Houthis, although that is what we are dealing with now. To what extent are we able to keep tabs on and monitor, or to work with allies who can keep tabs on and monitor, those dozen proxy forces that, sadly, Iran is now using with increased repetitiveness to attack not only our interests but the interests of our allies?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; he is something of an expert in this area. Iran is absolutely behind all the different proxy groups that he outlined, and many more. In a way, Iran is able to control this situation without getting too involved itself, and the world needs to wake up and recognise that. We are of course monitoring all of that incredibly closely. Appeasing the Houthis now, or all these other groups, will not lead to a more stable tomorrow, in the case of the Houthis, in respect of the Red sea. Being blind to the sponsors of terror will not benefit the international order in the long run, which is why it is so important that the world has acted.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes

I apologise for interrupting the Defence Secretary. On the shipping side of things, there has been an extraordinary reduction in confidence in that route. The only way to restore the confidence of ships to pass through the gulf of Aden and up through the Red sea is an increase in military convoys. I am sure he is coming to this, but what steps are being taken to drive up military convoys to escort vessels through that passage?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

As ever, my hon. Friend raises an excellent point. That is what Operation Prosperity Guardian is all about: that taskforce enables shipping to be protected to an extent. He may be getting at the broader point of whether individual ships should be protected. The view that the world has taken is that Prosperity Guardian provides an umbrella to shipping more widely. The sheer volume of ordinary traffic through the Red sea means that we need that US-led international taskforce for the security of the Red sea and the gulf of Aden.

This is incredibly important. After all, we are part of defending the international rules-based order in the actions that we are taking. Last week, I was onboard HMS Diamond—which is right at the heart of the issue in the Red sea—talking to our brave sailors who are out there protecting our critical sea lanes. The House will know that this is the first Royal Navy ship’s company for 32 years who have fired in anger—or in self-defence, in their case.[This section has been corrected on 29 January 2024, column 8MC — read correction] It was fascinating to talk to them about their experience and to witness their professionalism in dealing with this challenge.

It really did not have to be this way. We worked hard to warn the Houthis off. At the start of the year, the world sent a very clear message to the Houthis: “End your illegal and unjustified actions. Stop risking innocent lives. Please stop illegally detaining vessels and crews. Cease threatening the global economy.” All those warnings fell on deaf ears, and eventually enough was enough.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

I completely support the Government’s action, which is totally in accordance with international law and defending freedom of navigation on the high seas, but we can only do it with people; otherwise, there will be no one to maintain the Typhoons or crew the warships. People are leaving three times as fast as we are recruiting, as the Secretary of State is aware. Will he commit to coming to the House before Easter to make a statement on what we are doing about the retention of critical armed forces personnel? He knows why it is important.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend has been very solid on these issues, which he and I have spoken about in the Defence Committee and elsewhere. He will be pleased to know that I have recently held meetings with individuals he believes will help to resolve the issue. In common with many western militaries, I am working very hard to ensure that we have the men and women we need in our armed forces, skilled up to the right levels and capable of taking on this challenge. He will be reassured to know that I went to Akrotiri last week and met the Typhoon pilots. They are incredibly highly skilled, and backed by an enormous array of tanker pilots, ground crew, mechanics and many others. It is very important that we support them. I am working very hard on this, and will come back to my right hon. Friend, the Defence Committee and the House with future plans to back up what Haythornthwaite and others have proposed.

A fortnight ago, the Prime Minister, relevant Cabinet Ministers and I authorised the RAF precision strikes using four Typhoon FGR4s, supported by two Voyager air-refuelling tankers. They struck facilities at Bani in north-western Yemen and an airfield at Abbs. The sites had been used to launch reconnaissance and attack drones as well as cruise missiles over the Red sea, and they were destroyed. Let me reiterate what has been said before: this was limited, necessary and proportionate. It was done in self-defence in response to very specific threats and in line with international law.

Photo of Alicia Kearns Alicia Kearns Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on the Overseas Territories, Chair, Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on the Overseas Territories

I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution and for all he has been doing over the past few weeks. As he makes clear, this has been an increasingly difficult situation—we had no choice but to act. What is our assessment of the extent to which we need to degrade Houthi capabilities in order for them to change their intent and actions? As yet, I am unclear as to whether we have the ability to look into what the Houthis are thinking, let alone Iran’s activities. We must also recognise that the Houthis are, at best, a disobedient ally and not really a proxy, so they do have their own interests that they are pursuing.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend, with her immense experience and perspective as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is absolutely right about the formation of the Houthis, who, if we look back at their history, are actually opportunists. Only as far back as 2015, they did not support Hamas. Now they claim their entire programme is in support of Hamas’ illegal activities. She also quite rightly asks what proportion of the Houthi equipment and machinery has been destroyed. We work with others to assess the battle damages, as it were. I can confirm that the attacks so far have been complete in their targets, but the Houthis’ modus operandi is flexibility, and they will use launching sites as they see fit, which is why our US allies have been using what they would describe as dynamic strikes, as they ping up.

Sadly, as my hon. Friend and the House will know, the Houthis continued to persist even though they had been dealt a blow. A further 12 attacks followed, including anti-ship ballistic missiles and an unmanned aerial system that struck two US-owned merchant vessels. Our intelligence has continued to highlight an ongoing and imminent threat to our commercial and military vessels across the region.

As the Prime Minister told the House just yesterday, attempting to respond to the Houthis after they launch their irrational assaults is simply not a sustainable way to proceed, so on Monday night, working alongside our US partners, but also with support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands, the Prime Minister and I authorised a second wave of strikes. They were once again deployed using precision-guided Paveway IV missiles, and destroyed eight targets near Sanaa airfield, taking out clusters of Miraj surface-to-air missile launchers and further degrading the Houthis’ ability to hold our seas to ransom. Our targeting was once again carefully planned and precise and we are not aware of there being any civilian casualties at all, and the operation was designed in that context.

It was a complex joint operation involving close co-operation between UK and US aircrews. I wish to pay tribute to our brave pilots and aircrews, who carried out the action so very effectively. Last week, as I mentioned, it was a real honour to meet those pilots and the support team in Akrotiri—each of them professional to the last.

The military track is only one part of a much more comprehensive Government response. As the Prime Minister set out in his statement yesterday, we are working diplomatically to reduce the regional tensions, making it clear, especially to the Iranians, that they must stop supplying weapons, intelligence, training and money to the Houthis. We are working with our allies to halt the illegal flow of arms to the Houthi militia. We are working and seeking to cut off the Houthis’ financial support, and we are determined to help the people of Yemen, whom the Houthis are not friends of, to ensure that they receive the humanitarian aid they need.

Despite the Houthis’ absurd claims to be the Robin Hood of Yemen, the reality is they are simply exploiting the turmoil in the middle east to their own advantage and in their own self-interest—a point made strongly to me when I spoke to the President of Yemen recently. Ordinary Yemenis have not benefited one iota from their malign activity. On the contrary, they are victims of the same Houthi thuggery as anyone else. It hits our trade and the world’s trade, and will only in the end hurt the Yemeni population, damaging their security and driving up food prices.

However, the Houthis should be in no doubt that the world needs them to cease and desist their illegal behaviour. Today, as I said, we are living in what feels like a more dangerous world, but the UK will not be cowed. We will not retreat to our shores. Instead, we will continue to lead. As the whole House knows, we are already leading in Ukraine; we have increased our military support to £2.5 billion and signed a historic agreement on security co-operation, laying the foundation for a century-long partnership with our Ukrainian friends. We are also leading in NATO and have sent some 20,000 personnel to participate in Exercise Steadfast Defender. To put that into context, there are 32 countries involved in the NATO exercise and we are providing half the personnel.

Returning to the subject of today’s debate, we are also leading in the Red sea. This great waterway is one of mankind’s earliest trade routes, active since the days of the Pharaohs and through Roman times. We will do all we can to keep it active in the 21st century as well. We are working with our allies to deter regional danger, keeping those vital sea lanes open so that our ships and many others can traverse the ancient waters without fear.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 3:46, 24 January 2024

Today the House was set to debate the full sweep of defence and international affairs until the change of business yesterday, which gave this debate its focus on the Red sea. I know that Members on all sides will welcome the opportunity to debate and to question the Government on the UK’s presence and the tensions in this part of the middle east, and I look forward to the contributions from all sides to the debate. Nevertheless, I hope Ministers will ensure that we get the opportunity soon to debate the broader aspects of defence, especially on Ukraine, as the Defence Secretary indicated in his remarks he is keen to do.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

In the old days—I have been here a long time—we had debates in Government time on defence, as we do this afternoon, but in recent times we have not done so and the debates have been down to the Backbench Business Committee. I very much welcome the Committee, which is a great organisation, but none the less we ought to have defence debates in Government time on a Tuesday or Wednesday, set by the Government. I hope the Secretary of State will ensure that that happens in future.

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

The hon. Gentleman has great experience and he is right to say that Government time signals the importance that the Government give to the business they bring to this House. While the Backbench Business Committee does an important and useful job, it is Government time that matters. Since the Defence Secretary has been in post, we have not had that general debate on defence, and we should. We have not had a debate on Ukraine for four months, and we should, certainly ahead of the bloody two-year anniversary next month of Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

We have also not had a debate since 7 October on Israel and Palestine, which is extraordinary. There is an irony that, had we gone ahead with the original debate on international relations, that could have been a subject for debate, but we are restricted by this debate. It is clear why the situation in the Red sea is a priority, but that is probably also a priority, which the Government might wish to take up, and which I have raised previously with the Leader of the House.

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

At the risk of sounding a bit like the shadow Leader of the House responding to a business question, my hon. Friend is right. He is very experienced and I am sure he will find a way, as the Prime Minister did yesterday in his statement about the Red sea action, to talk more widely about Israel and Palestine without testing Mr Deputy Speaker’s patience too far.

Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford Scottish National Party, Ross, Skye and Lochaber

I thank the right hon. Member for his remarks about Ukraine. It is important, in the context of everything that is happening globally, that we take the opportunity once again to say that we stand in Ukraine, particularly in the light of the changing political landscape in North America. All of us here, and our allies in Europe, have a responsibility to send a message that we will do everything necessary to support that country, which must prevail against Putin’s aggression.

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

I, for one, appreciated the right hon. Gentleman’s leadership of his party when Putin invaded Ukraine. Like us, he has demonstrated that the UK has been and remains totally united behind Ukraine and in confronting Russian aggression. I say to the Defence Secretary that one of the important things that the Government do by organising a debate in the House is signal the importance that all sides of the House give to the support to Ukraine. It is also a chance to explain to the British public why this matters so much, and why defence of the UK starts in Ukraine. It is essential to our interests that Ukraine prevails, not Putin.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

One way in which one can stretch the terms of the debate a little further than its precise wording without infringing any rules is to remark upon the fact that in the Red sea, British naval assets are particularly important. Does the shadow Secretary of State agree that there should be no question, now or in the near or medium future, of our losing our amphibious assault ships, which are so necessary for the combined operations that one must engage in when taking on piratical opponents?

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

One other way of stretching the limits of a tightly drawn debate is experienced interventions of the nature that the right hon. Gentleman has just demonstrated. One advantage of debates such as this is that we hear from the Government not just at the start of the debate, but at the end, so we can look forward to the Minister picking up and responding to the right hon. Gentleman’s question when he winds up.

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

What do I think? Well, it would be helpful to have access to the sort of classified information that the Defence Secretary has in order to make these decisions. It is his responsibility to do so, and it is our responsibility in this House to challenge and hold him to account when he makes those decisions—and, of course, if he fails to make decisions.

Perhaps I might return to the Red sea and the theme and focus of this debate. We now have around 2,500 military personnel in the middle east, and I begin by recognising their special service. Many were deployed at short notice—most were away from their families over Christmas—helping to supply essential aid for Palestinians in Gaza, working to reinforce regional security and reduce the risk of wider escalation, and, in cases such as those of the crew of HMS Diamond and the pilots of the Typhoons and air tankers, operating under great pressure and threat. They undertake their tasks with total professionalism. We thank them and are proud of them.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

At this juncture, I think it worth pointing out—the Secretary of State may want to refer to this—that Iranian proxies are regularly rocketing, or attempting to rocket, US bases in Iraq, some of which have a UK presence. It is only through good luck, and complex air defence, if I understand correctly, that there have not been considerable US casualties or potential UK casualties. That is a point that we need to bear in mind when we talk not only about Iranian proxies but about UK forces in the middle east.

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

The hon. Gentleman has insights into the situation that are rare, even in this House, from his own experience and his particular interest. He is totally right. It is not just about the risks of Iranian-backed proxies in Iraq: the Iranian interests in Iraq, and the attacks on American bases and personnel—as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, some of those bases are shared with UK personnel—constitute one of the flashpoints and risks of wider escalation. Mercifully, none of those attacks has led to any deaths, but they have led to some injuries. Given that we have 2,500 UK personnel in the region, and given the heightened risk they may face, it would be good to hear what additional protections and measures the Defence Secretary is ensuring are put in place.

Our UK military presence in the Red sea protects international shipping and strengthens regional security. If anyone doubts that, consider what the consequences would be of no action being taken to deal with the Houthi attacks. That extremist force, backed by Iran and with a long record of brutal piracy in the region, could attack commercial ships at will and attack our Navy’s ships without consequence. They are targeting the ships of all nations, threatening the freedom of global trade and putting civilian and military lives in serious danger. That is why last month, 20 countries joined the Red sea maritime protection force, Operation Prosperity Guardian; it is why this month, the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning the Houthis’ actions and demanding that their attacks stop; and it is why the UK and the US, with operational support from four other nations, have conducted joint strikes on Houthi missile sites, command centres and weapons stores.

We back the two UK-US joint air strikes carried out this month. We accept that they were targeted, necessary and devised to minimise the risk to civilian life, and we will judge any future UK military action on its merits. Ministers have said that the aim of these strikes is first to degrade Houthi capabilities, and secondly to deter their attacks. We accept that the attacks were justified, but we ask the Defence Secretary to confirm how they were also effective. We know that deterrence is a sliding scale, so we ask the Defence Secretary how the Government will guard against Britain being sucked deeper into the Yemeni conflict.

We also back the leading role that the Royal Navy plays in the continuing military defence of shipping from all nations against further Houthi missiles, drones and attack boats. However, the lion’s share of the responsibility for protecting international freedom of navigation in the Red sea is being shouldered by the Americans, just as the US has been doing across the world for nearly 80 years. What action are the Government taking to persuade other countries to join the maritime protection force? What are they doing to persuade those already involved to deploy more ships? What efforts are they making to encourage other nations with a big global trade interest to play a part in protecting freedom of navigation and using their influence to stop the Houthi attacks, and how long does the Defence Secretary expect Operation Prosperity Guardian to be needed?

The US aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower has been essential to the operations to date in the Red sea. Is the UK carrier ready to deploy to the Red sea if required? Has the Defence Secretary made the decision to not deploy HMS Queen Elizabeth, and if not, why not? A UK destroyer, HMS Diamond—to which the Defence Secretary has paid tribute—has also played a hugely important and impressive part in the maritime task force. She has been in the Red sea for nearly two months and will need to be rotated out. Do we have a second UK destroyer available to replace HMS Diamond in the Red sea, and if not, what will replace her? If that is to be HMS Richmond, when will she arrive in the Red sea, and how will that change the capabilities that we can contribute to Operation Prosperity Guardian?

We must cut the illegal flow of arms to the Houthi militia. The US intercepted a weapons shipment about two weeks ago, and the UK has successfully done similarly in the past. What is the UK’s capability and plan for doing so again now? Rather as the Defence Secretary indicated, military action on its own cannot solve the problems in the region, so what diplomatic action are the Government taking to pressure the Houthis to cease their attacks, to settle the civil war in Yemen, and to pressure Iran to stop supplying weapons and intelligence to the Houthis?

Like the Defence Secretary today and the Leader of the Opposition yesterday, I totally reject the Houthi claims that firing missiles and drones at ships from around the world is somehow linked to the conflict in Gaza. They have been attacking oil tankers and seizing ships for least five years, not just in the past 109 days since 7 October. These attacks do absolutely nothing for the Palestinian people. We want the Gaza fighting to stop, with a humanitarian truce now and then a sustainable ceasefire to stop the killing of innocent citizens, get all remaining hostages out and get much more aid into Gaza. This is what we have been calling for in public, and what we have been working for in private. Our leader, our shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy, and our shadow International Development Minister, my hon. Friend Lisa Nandy, have all been out in the region in the last three months.

The humanitarian agonies of the Palestinians in Gaza are now extreme. Parents are starving, children are drinking dirty water and there are even reports of amputations being carried out without anaesthetic. More aid has to get to Palestinians now. Surely Britain can do more. There have been just four RAF aid flights and one Navy shipment in nearly four months. We got 100 tonnes of aid to Turkey in the first 10 days after the earthquake last year. In answers to parliamentary questions, the Armed Forces Minister has told me recently that the RAF and the Navy stand by ready to do more, but the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has not asked it to do so. What is going on? There should be a steady stream of aid from Britain. Our aid efforts must be accelerated.

For long-term peace, there has to be a political process, and one that has the capacity, conviction and commitment to turn the rhetoric around two states living side-by-side in peace into reality. Many across this House, like all in the Labour party present, will have found the Israeli Prime Minister’s recent rejection of the two-state settlement utterly unacceptable and wrong. Palestinian statehood is the inalienable right of the Palestinian people. It is the only long-term hope for peace and stability, and for normalisation for both Israelis and Palestinians. If elected to form the Government, Labour will lead a new push for peace, working with international allies, in the confidence that, as the Prime Minister said to this House yesterday, we in this country and we in this House are

“united in support of a two-state solution.”—[Official Report, 23 January 2024;
Vol. 744, c. 152.]

Photo of Alicia Kearns Alicia Kearns Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on the Overseas Territories, Chair, Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on the Overseas Territories 4:03, 24 January 2024

While much of this debate will rightly focus on the rationale, execution and objectives of the recent airstrikes against Houthi rebel military infrastructure, I want to begin with some comments on who the Houthis really are. I have been deeply disturbed by comments in our national conversation painting them somehow as a progressive movement, as freedom fighters or as some legitimate representative body of the Yemeni people. That is so disturbing not only because people are not taking the time to educate themselves, but because the Houthis do not deny who they are. It is out there for all to see. Their rallying cry and flag are quite explicit:

“Death to America, Death to Israel, A Curse upon the Jews”.

These are the words that this group puts on their flag. That is their rallying cry, and every action the Houthis take is with that in mind, with hatred in their hearts. Yet we see people, often well-meaning people—it is concerning that even people in this House have made such suggestions—suggest that Yemen has freedom fighters on its shores, and that somehow because Yemen, they claim, was a British colony, the Houthis should be seen as anti-colonial freedom fighters. Unlike southern Yemen, North Yemen was never a British colony. After the collapse of the Ottoman empire, North Yemen was ruled by the Imamate, a theocratic polity led by the religious leader of the Zaydi Shia.

The Houthis offer no vision for Yemen’s future. They seek a return to the past, free from ideals such as equality, women’s rights and democracy. What inspiration they draw from the modern world comes from the Ayatollah and the Islamic revolutionary movement of Iran. We can trace their violent rise to what was initially a moment of hope for Yemen. We all remember the Arab spring back in 2011, when Yemenis rose up together and toppled the dictatorship. Employing the Ayatollah’s handbook, the Houthis initially pledged themselves to co-operation and building a new Yemen, sending delegates to the national dialogue conference and building a deliberate façade, when they were actually working to reject the future that young Yemenis dreamed of. Armed by Iran, the Houthis blocked the 2014 referendum on the introduction of a new democratic constitution, and began a military campaign of conquest and repression. It is easy for us to pass judgment from afar, but the people of Yemen are the witnesses of their crimes.

Let me share briefly with the House the story of Baraa Shiban, a Yemeni democracy and human rights activist who sat on the Yemeni national dialogue conference and saw first hand how the Houthi used deception and oppression to secure their powerbase. Baraa has since claimed refuge in the UK, and now works on the cause of Yemen as a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. He shared with me that, after the Houthi coup in 2014, they banned all political parties, closed all media outlets and suppressed Yemen’s fledgling civil society, which was just beginning to bud. They rejected all calls for elections, and instead chose to govern through fear and intimidation. Baraa was an eyewitness to the Houthi method of conquest from 2014. He saw two small rural villages refuse to surrender to the so-called rebels. In response, they forced all the residents to watch as they summarily blew up all the houses in front of them. He observed as they kidnapped and murdered the family of Akram Al-Zurqa, a community leader in his province, before filming themselves blowing up those families for vile propaganda purposes.

The brutality of the Houthi leadership has been recognised by our Government, and UN security resolutions have been put in place against leader Sultan Zabin for the rape and torture of politically active women. Let that sink in, Mr Deputy Speaker: women who choose to have a voice in Yemen will be tortured. The head of the Houthi security services arbitrarily detained them and raped them for speaking their minds. Not content with merely brutalising villages and women, the Houthis detained two of Baraa’s friends from the Arab spring protests, young journalists Abdullah and Yousif. They locked them in a weapons depot, knowing full well that it would be bombed by the Saudi-led coalition to oppose the Houthis, and they left them there to die.

That was a clear breach of international law, as was the industrialised taking of children and forcing them to be soldiers. The UN estimates that, in just one year between 2020 and 2021, 2,000 children were killed after having been forced to be soldiers for the Houthis. Tragically, the Houthis also expelled Yemen’s 3,500-year-old Jewish community from their homeland, and banished the last Jewish family back in March 2021. Yet now they say that they are acting in defence of Gaza. Now they say they have always cared about the Palestinian cause, despite having hated Israel—yes—but done nothing in the interests of the people of Palestine. This conflict is merely an attempt to distract from their own brutal regime at home and gain clout because, let us be clear, among terrorists there is a pecking order, and they are fighting for who is the big man on the block. The Houthis think this is their chance.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

My hon. Friend is making some very important points. It is worth mentioning that one of the other things that the Houthis have done is deliberately block humanitarian aid coming into the port, to starve the population. They might draw a parallel with the terrible situation in Gaza, but their actions show that they do not believe that at all.

Photo of Alicia Kearns Alicia Kearns Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on the Overseas Territories, Chair, Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on the Overseas Territories

It is no surprise that my right hon. Friend makes an important point. Whether it is blocking aid, forcing children to act as soldiers or raping and torturing women, the Houthis have no interest in supporting anything but their own power. They have consistently lied to the people of Yemen, and we cannot allow them to act again. I urge anyone in this country who is suggesting in any way that the Houthis are acting in the interests of the Palestinians please to take the time to look at things. If they will not, they should at least look in the mirror.

Moving on, I want to look at why we are absolutely right to take this action. These strikes were a strategic necessity. Article 51 of the UN charter is absolute on the legal right to self-defence for maritime freedom. In the days leading up to the airstrikes, we saw the UN Security Council come together and agree that action was needed. There was a motion calling for an immediate end to Houthi attacks on shipping. Leading up to the strikes, there were 26 attacks in those waters. That might not have been much reported in the media here, but it was elsewhere. Our Royal Navy has had to defend itself against the worst attack against our ships for decades, and the US is having to deploy Tomahawk missiles to protect itself. That was almost unheard of for a long time. We all heard the arguments from the Defence Secretary. We all know full well that almost 30% of all shipping containers pass through those waters, and 90% of ships are having to avoid the area.

I want briefly to look at the Houthi military capabilities, because there is a view held, particularly among some young people, thanks to a very unhelpful TikTok account. The House knows my views on TikTok, and it is unsurprising that it is helping to spread unhelpful narratives. On this account, a young man seems to be bobbing around on the waters outside Yemen—he could be the star of a movie, I admit—suggesting that the Houthis are working in the interests of Palestinians. The Houthis are incredibly well armed, beyond what many people think. They have Iranian support, and the Iranians have provided rockets and drones, but they also have their own domestic capabilities.

We have to remember that the former dictator of Yemen defected to the Houthi cause, and he brought with him ballistic and cruise missiles. Those are now being used against the Royal Navy, the US and allies. The Houthis have one F-5 jet. Some may say that it is only one jet, but it is attacking the Royal Navy; we have seen them using these weapons against us. They have helicopter pilots. They have so much more domestic capacity beyond what they are being given by the Iranians. Will the Defence Secretary at some point update the House on what assessment we have not just of how we strangle Iranian donations of equipment to the Houthis, but of how much more equipment the Houthis have hidden? We know they have buried it underground, and we also know that they took a great deal when they took control. We need to tackle how we strangle the supply of equipment from Iran.

Moving on to strategic concerns, I have already asked the Defence Secretary how we assess the point to which we need to degrade Houthi capabilities so that they change their intent. This is a deterrence mission; it is a mission to put deterrence back in place. How far down the process of attrition are we? How do we ensure that we do not become the air force of the Yemeni Government? How do we ensure that we have a point to which we are operating, rather than just continuing to try until we see the Houthis change direction?

I am also concerned because Yemen is still in a state of civil war. Although the Houthis control the majority of the population, they control only about 40% of the territory. Meanwhile, we have al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Daesh, both operating in Yemen. My understanding is that there may be some sort of informal relationship between AQAP and the Houthis, because AQAP has been able to move equipment and matériel across the country to where it has its bases. However, as I touched on, terrorists have a pecking order, and they like to be the big man on the street. I am concerned that we will see these two groups step up their operations and capitalise on what they see as a competing terrorist group being under attack. How do we make sure that we are acting now so that other terrorist groups are not capitalising on those attacks?

My hon. Friend Bob Seely rightly raised his concerns about Iraq. That was the first question I asked the Foreign Secretary when he rang me to talk about the airstrikes. I am deeply concerned by our significant footprint in Iraq, not least because over the past few months we have seen increasing attacks on our assets by Shi’a militias beholden to the Iranian regime.

We have also seen the IRGC commit an airstrike in Erbil, and that is concerning but an opportunity. For the IRGC to have taken responsibility for such an airstrike is a step change; we have not seen it do that in the past. That gives more credence to what we will hear from my right hon. Friend Sir Liam Fox about the need to proscribe the IRGC, and it also fundamentally changes how we can talk about the IRGC and its operations. What is the Government’s assessment of how the Red sea situation is likely to escalate, particularly in Iraq? How are we working to protect our assets?

I will touch briefly on Syria. Many colleagues will know that, when the vote came to Parliament, the decision not to intervene militarily in Syria was one of the driving reasons for my joining this place. I still believe that a great mistake was made on that day. Syria has become—forgive me if this sounds flippant—the Amazon warehouse for terrorists. Whether it is narcotics, weapons, people, Shi’a militias or trafficking—you name it—all that is taking place in Syria. What are we doing to reduce the risks emanating from Syria to our assets and interests on the ground?

I turn to Iranian proxies. The Houthis are only one of Iran’s proxies and allies. As I said earlier, different proxies have different relationships. I believe the Houthis to be more of a disobedient ally than a direct proxy, because the command and control is not as significant as it is with Hezbollah. We have Hamas, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’a militias and the Assad regime in Syria. What work are we doing to ensure that we have a clear assessment of the differing relationships between different proxies and allies with Iran? Some will be receiving just intelligence. Some will be receiving matériel. With some, there will be direct command and control. Some will feel greater loyalty to others. We need to assess the extent to which Iran will conduct further conflict and chaos to defend each of those proxies. For example, I suspect that Hezbollah is far more happy to wage full-on warfare in defence of the clerics in Iran than the Houthis would be. How do we ensure that we get there?

I have severe concerns about Hezbollah’s future actions. Nasrallah has so far decided to stay out of the action, but the reality is that that could change in a moment. Again, this goes back to who wants to be seen as the best terrorist on the block, and Nasrallah is deeply ideologically tied to the Ayatollahs—more so than any others. While in the past Hezbollah has acted almost as a trip wire to protect Iran’s nuclear capabilities, now, unfortunately, while we may not see significant restraint, it has been showing significant restraint, given its capabilities. I am concerned about what we may see going forward.

Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford Scottish National Party, Ross, Skye and Lochaber

The hon. Lady is outlining the scale of the challenge and the threats we face, and not just in parts of the middle east but in Africa and, as we know, Europe as well. Does that not bring home the responsibility we have to ensure that we have a strategic assessment of how we react to all of those threats, not just for those of us on these islands but for our partners as well? The threat we face today is perhaps greater than at any time since the second world war.

Photo of Alicia Kearns Alicia Kearns Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on the Overseas Territories, Chair, Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on the Overseas Territories

I thank the right hon. Member—my friend—who is always generous in his thoughts and contributions to such debates. I agree entirely.

That takes me to my fundamental point: this may be a debate on the Red sea, but we are really talking about Iran. My assessment—colleagues may differ—is that Iran is willing to do everything but reach outright warfare. It will industrialise sub-threshold conflict and seek chaos wherever it can. My worry is that its current appetite—where it has set its threshold just below outright warfare—is too high. The message that we need to hear going out from our allies to the Iranians—I was pleased to see the Foreign Secretary meeting the Iranians to deliver this message—is that that threshold is too high and they must pull back. That must be our strategic priority.

I hope that the Government will bring people together. I am looking at putting together a half-day workshop for all MPs, at which we can look at what the policy solutions might be for tackling Iran, because all roads lead to Iran. My worry is that we are compartmentalising our response to Iran. It has nuclear ambitions and proxies, and it has given Russia the drones it needs. I believe that the relationship between Iran and Russia has become strategic; it has fully reversed from what we saw over the past two decades. We are seeing hostage-taking, assassinations, transnational repression and femicide at home.

We must stop treating those individual issues as if they can somehow be drawn away from each other and recognise that we need a strategic approach, working with our allies for all of them. At the moment, we see individual escalations in each of those areas and do not respond comprehensively. We see Iran massively increasing its drone production and giving them all to Russia, but we do not see a significant response. We see Iran taking more and more hostages, but we do not see a significant response. In isolation, all these things look like a small gradual ratcheting, but when we put them together, the situation is utterly untenable.

I hesitate to talk too much about IRGC proscription—I feel I would be stealing other colleagues’ sandwiches, so I will leave it with them—but I think the record is well known in this House as to the position. I acknowledge that it is not a straightforward decision. Yes, Iran will see it as an act of war. Yes, we will likely have to close our embassy on the ground. However, we need to take action against the IRGC. Only this week we saw on the BBC a video of sanctioned IRGC generals holding recruitment Zooms with British national student organisations. This is the same organisation that MI5 had to warn was conducting assassinations on our soil. And while I am here, I repeat my call for the creation of a special envoy or special Prime Minister’s lead for those who are arbitrarily detained, because we need someone who can focus on that throughout the piece.

I want to touch briefly on Iran at home, because I believe we are dealing with the most brittle Iran that we have had for a long time. The way Iran rules is essentially a protection racket and people have started to see through that. It is splintering, but it is too early to see the actors for change who will escalate the situation. Looking briefly to the diplomatic effort, there has been too much focus on the E3 plus US. We need an Arab-led solution. We need to bring our Arab partners into the fold far more. There is an anxiety that the west is not a long-term strategic partner; that we will conduct this isolated activity, which is absolutely right, but not stay and be committed long term. So, how do we demonstrate a commitment to build a broader coalition that can meaningfully push back against Iranian influence in the region to protect us not just there, but at home?

That leads me to the threat to the UK from Iran. I am gravely concerned that we are not yet taking it seriously enough. Yes, we have now seen the Islamic centre closed, under a review by the Charity Commission. Yes, I managed to get its education centre in west London to no longer be accredited, but we are not doing enough to tackle transnational repression in the UK.

These strikes are both legal and proportionate, and a response to hugely damaging attacks by Houthi rebels on the rule of law and global commerce. A failure to act would result in global economic hardship, huge damage to the British economy, a resurgence in inflation and the risk of a successful Houthi attack on a Royal Navy or British maritime vessel. This is about re-establishing deterrence, but it is also about sending a message to Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China. If we think that what we have seen over the past few weeks is concerning for global trade, it is absolutely nothing compared to what we could see.

I reiterate that these attacks have absolutely nothing to do with Gaza. We must reject that false narrative, which is designed solely to further the Houthis along their blood-soaked road to power in Yemen, and the Ayatollah’s dreams of regional domination. What unites the Houthis and the Iranian regime is their willingness to sacrifice innocent people in their pursuit of power and their readiness to inflict unthinkable violence on anyone who opposes them.

I ask the Government to avoid the mistakes of the past and to think long term and strategically about how we go from here. We all want to see a two-state solution and a Palestinian state. What we need now is an international Palestine contact group and to launch track 2 negotiations, bringing together civil society, women and academics. I also urge all colleagues—those of us who would quickly condemn anyone who denied Israel the right to statehood—to also condemn those who deny the Palestinians the right to their own state.

A true friend seeks to end the cycles of war, not add more fuel to the fire. Iran and the Houthis are no friends of the Palestinian people. I asked Baraa Shiban, the Yemeni democracy activist, to summarise what the Houthis have done to his country. This is what he said:

“The Houthis run a network of militias that terrorised the Yemeni people for more than a decade and their atrocities were ignored by the international community. The Houthis film themselves blowing up our houses and those of their opponents, and their top leaders have been sanctioned by the UK, rightly, for using sexual violence against women activists. The House of Commons should call for them to be held accountable, and recognise the plight of the Yemeni people.”

I hope we will not have to see many more strikes in the region, but I suspect that this is not the end of them. The Defence Secretary will continue to have my full support, because this is right and this is about bringing back deterrence.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence) 4:24, 24 January 2024

It is always good to follow the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Alicia Kearns, and I actually agree with quite a lot of what they had to say—I might go into that in a bit more detail in the next few minutes.

It seems strange to be having a general debate of this kind on a Wednesday afternoon in Government time. As the shadow Defence Secretary, John Healey, suggested, a general debate on defence and security has morphed into a debate on the situation in the Red sea—a more current and certainly more substantive topic, but one that will, I have to say, allow me to make the same points that I was going to make in a general debate, albeit within the frame of what I hope I am wrong in thinking is looking increasingly like some type of long-term commitment.

Those of us who speak about defence on a regular basis—I see some familiar faces here today—can probably finish each other’s speeches by now, as Members will probably have seen on the odd occasion. Whether we are colleagues on the Defence Committee—and I see that Richard Drax is present—or ordinary Members who are interested in the subject, we tend to be a very dedicated bunch. While I certainly do not agree with everything that everyone has to say, I certainly always learn a lot from the contributions of Members such as my friend Sir Julian Lewis, who is also present, and indeed Mr Francois, who has left the Chamber. It is safe to say that when it comes to debates such as this featuring as the last item on a Wednesday, Members usually have to care to take the time to participate.

That is why it is so frustrating, from my perspective, that time and again the Government’s rhetoric in relation to our defence and security, the current situation being a case in point, so rarely matches the action taken—again, from my perspective—and why I sometimes wonder, if His Majesty’s Government pay so little heed to the contributions of those on their side of the house, who exactly they are listening to.

Before I explore that much further, and perhaps add to what was said by the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, let me state the obvious: the Houthi movement is an obscurantist, antisemitic and theocratic death cult that has violated human rights and international law every step of the way. Not only does the Houthis’ current strategy continue these violations of international law, but they seek to use the suffering of the Palestinian people in a way that cannot be justified.

However, in my view—this is the point that may distinguish my remarks from not just those of the Government but those of the shadow Defence Secretary—the fact that current events in Palestine are not the cause of the Houthi attacks on shipping does not mean that they are not symptoms of the same phenomenon: namely, western indifference to the region, followed by periods of intense military involvement, and little effort made to address longer-term issues.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

I will, briefly, but I want to move on quickly.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

I just want to probe the hon. Gentleman slightly on his comments about the west not being involved in the region until something crops up. It was the Royal Navy, and other navies, that were protecting shipping from Somalian pirates, and it is the Royal Navy that has bases in Bahrain to support ships travelling through the strait of Hormuz. The west is involved in the region, and although that may be highlighted more now, I wanted the hon. Gentleman to clarify his comments: he is presumably not suggesting that we have not been involved in the region until now.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Perhaps he should refer to what was said by his hon. Friend the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee about the diplomatic effort. I thought that her point about Arab-led initiatives was well made. Perhaps the Government should listen to that as a future intention. I think that is more to the point than engaging in military action, which has been ongoing for some time.

My SNP colleagues and I gave the first round of strikes against the Houthi targets qualified support earlier this month, and we do so again in respect of the latest strikes, but as we begin to slide towards what seems almost like an inevitable longer-term commitment, it cannot be said often enough that the “what”, the “how’” and the “why” of UK grand strategy are, at least from my perspective, dangerously out of sync. Let us start with last week’s keynote announcement from the Defence Secretary, who I see is no longer in their place, that

“The era of the peace dividend is over and 2024 will mark an inflection point.”

On the surface, that is a pretty banal observation, but whether we call it the polycrisis or the age of grey-zone conflict, those of us who come to these debates on a regular basis have been talking about the possibilities of this type of thing happening at least since I arrived in 2015. I am not sure how 2024 will be anywhere near the inflection points that 2014 or 2022 were; none the less, that is a bold statement from the Secretary of State. It is important to say that he also backed it up with the announcement of a £405 million investment in so-called drone-killing Sea Viper missiles.

On the surface, it would seem that the Secretary of State has got his why and his what sorted. We just need a how, and that is where I think we begin to run into trouble. For all the high-falutin’ rhetoric from the MOD main building, I am not sure that anyone here really believes we are going to meet the how in the form of an increase in defence spending to meet these new threats, given the disastrous state of the MOD’s finances, as seen in the latest National Audit Office report.

We are in the middle of the cost of living crisis, as we all know well. Inflation seems to be coming under control; it is only worse in the defence sector, and the proliferation of US dollar-dominated contracts is not going to make things easier, especially with a soft pound and the reality that we are now living in one of the poorest countries in western Europe. Any increase in defence spending at this time means a cut elsewhere in the budget; that is simply a reality. Although there are those, particularly on the Opposition Benches, who are brave enough to say that they would like to make cuts elsewhere to do this, I have seen absolutely no indication from the Government that they intend to do so.

I am no economist—hard to believe, I know—but I believe that practitioners of that special art call it a “revealed preference”. An example would be when a potential leadership candidate advocates spending 3% of GDP, only to quietly drop the commitment when they become Chancellor. All our recent Prime Ministers have made all the right noises when it comes to the problems in international security, but none of them, at least from my perspective, has met that challenge with a significant increase. Indeed, I think we can all agree that if that redoubtable and dogged former Secretary of State, Mr Wallace—I let him know that I was going to mention him in the debate—was only able to secure an increase to 2.5%, and even then only by the end of the decade, I do not think anyone is expecting his successor to be any more successful.

I should point out—I say this as something of a sceptic about increasing the defence budget or even the value in such arbitrary targets—that we judge Governments based on their record, and this is what this one has. Once we start to scratch at the how in the UK strategy, the what and the why also start to come unstuck. Let us take the Sea Viper order: what was presented as an announcement to counter this new and specific threat has actually been on the table since 2012, only to be constantly shifted to the right because of pressures elsewhere on the budget.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

I am grateful, and I regard him as my hon. Friend too. Before he leaves the issue of percentages spent on defence, would he not agree with me that, crude though they are, these are indicators of a national priority? The trouble is that if we do not spend enough on defence in peacetime, and then a conflict breaks out—we are now beginning to hear talk of having to be prepared for major conflict in the next decade or two—we will be spending vastly more than 3% or 4% on defence. So how much better is it to spend a bit more in peacetime to prevent the conflict, and how much better than that is it that America should realise that investing in Ukraine’s effort is also helping to raise the deterrence threshold?

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

I both agree and disagree. Had the Ministry made sustained investment in capability, we might not have found ourselves in this situation. The right hon. Gentleman is welcome to stay for my Adjournment debate on nuclear infrastructure, in which we might go into the number crunching in far more detail—he may try to pass on that.

Far from being a simple drone killer, Sea Viper is a sophisticated ballistic missile defence system that has been in development since the 1980s. Each Aster 30 missile costs £2 million a pop. Whoever in the main building thought it was a good idea to call it a drone killer evidently had not done the cost-benefit analysis on taking out mass-produced Chinese drones, costing £100, with a £2 million missile. That is before we even get to the platforms that deliver the capability.

The Minister might be able to correct me, but the MOD is now officially refusing to publicly disclose the size of its escort fleet, which the Houthis probably already know—maybe it is in one of the TikToks that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton mentioned. That refusal got a bit of play last week, although we should consider the why of it all.

If we can all agree that we are living in a world of increasingly complicated and interlinked threats, why is the Red sea important to the UK? I consulted two principal documents published since I became an MP—the 2015 strategic defence and security review and the 2021 integrated review—but, alas, there was no mention of the Red sea. Yemen was given a single cursory mention in each, and both in the context of other regional conflicts. The Government’s defence is that both documents were written before the Ever Given accident reminded us that the Suez canal and the Red sea are an important bottleneck for global trade.

Ultimately, neither document, one pre-Brexit and one post-Brexit, tells a compelling story about UK engagement in that part of the world, which makes it harder for me, and certainly for the public, to see why sustained engagement, if it happens, is in our long-term interest. Do not get me wrong: even as a committed north Atlanticist who believes that the primary commitment of Scotland and the UK should be to our northern European neighbourhood, I am open to being convinced. But the mood music throughout that time was on global Britain, without elucidating what that actually meant.

Do not get me started on the Indo-Pacific tilt either. The integrated review made the incredible assertion that the UK wishes to be the European state

“with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific”.

That claim received very little interrogation at the time. Again, as a committed north Atlanticist, I was perhaps never going to be on board with the idea of an Indo-Pacific tilt, but the more I try to find out about it, the less convinced I become.

The Indo-Pacific is a big place and is home to two of the three largest oceans in the world and three of the five largest states. Any tilt towards it would surely require some sort of prioritisation, but we have never heard any talk of this. The Red sea region could have been part of that, securing the freedom of maritime trade from the Indo-Pacific and bringing in European partners with a presence in the region, along with others, but there was a complete failure to communicate any of that to Members, never mind to the general public.

Forgive those of us who are sceptical about the what. With the strikes against Houthi targets, we can clearly see the how. The Royal Navy, which is doing a commendable job, is in its poorest and most diminished state for many years. The right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford alluded to that, and it is a consequence not only of budgetary pressures but of a complete failure of this and previous Governments to make the case for the why, be that in the Red sea or the North sea.

Instead, we have a manpower and retention crisis caused by over a decade of wage stagnation; the ongoing possibility that the two remaining landing platform docks will be mothballed, calling into question the long-term viability of the Royal Marines; and the admission in November that the entire fleet of SSNs was alongside at the same time. Yet if we were going by the MOD’s spin on things, all is well, because we can still field two carrier strike groups, even though everyone knows we would never have the manpower to do so at the same time; the AUKUS deal will allow Astute-class boats to operate in the Pacific ocean, even though, as we have heard, they sometimes cannot even get to the North sea; and—who can forget, from last week—we now have a space laser, or at least we will in 10 or 15 years’ time. So let me end with a general observation: when it comes to UK grand strategy in the Red sea, denial is not just a river you end up in if you take a wrong turn on your way there.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee

Order. As Members can see, 14 Members wish to participate in this debate. Although I am trying not to put a time limit on people’s speeches, if they could show some self-discipline, we will get everybody in with a decent amount of time. I call Sir Alec Shelbrooke.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell 4:40, 24 January 2024

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I have to say that I was disappointed by the approach Martin Docherty-Hughes took to the operations we have had to carry out in the Red sea to protect international shipping. He makes the point, perhaps reasonably, that budgets and the finances of this country are under great pressure and that there has been a cost of living crisis. That crisis has occurred through instability around the world, whether we are talking about supply chains during the pandemic, Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine or, now, the threats to shipping at the key point of entry to the Red sea. Those all have a fundamental impact at home, so investment in defence is not something that just takes money out of the pot that the Government need to spend: it helps to build the security that our constituents need.

Through history, people have too often looked at distant lands and said, “That’s got nothing to do with me.” That view never was true, but today it could never be less true. We see that when we look at exactly how global supply chains end up with things in our supermarkets and when we look at the fuel crisis. Of course, it is not just the increase in the cost of shipping that will add to inflationary pressures, but the fact that modern industry works to a just-in-time system. Widget A may now take three weeks to get to widget B, which may only take a week to get somewhere. That will cause huge back-up production problems in the factories and production plants that move things on to the system. So the time constraints of having to go around the Cape to deliver the goods that are needed that have suddenly been hoisted upon global shipping will end up having a direct impact on our constituents once more. Therefore, it is important that we invest further, certainly in the Royal Navy.

I take issue with people in this House who want to do a disservice to the Royal Navy, which is one of the most advanced and finest navies in the world. We have replaced the vast majority of our capital equipment in this century alone. The technical ability of our Royal Navy outdoes that of a great number of countries, including in respect of many of the capabilities produced in the United States. The Type 45 destroyer was a visionary destroyer and allows wars to be fought in a way that was not feasible before. With the introduction of the Type 26s coming forward, the Type 31s, and the fact that we have renewed our hunter-killer submarines and are renewing Dreadnought, we have huge infrastructure. That is in addition to aircraft carriers, which have always had an important strategic aspect, especially when we are trying to operate alongside the allies. Comments have been made about it always being the USA picking up the burden, but Britain punches above its weight by having that capability.

Where I do think we run into a problem with the MOD and its funding is that, because of rules set by previous Chancellors and carried on as to the difference between borrowing for capital and not spending on revenue, and how that has worked out, it has always been easy to produce a capital spreadsheet in order to produce more ships, but no one ever looks at how much revenue we are going to need to keep those ships running, to keep them serviced and to crew them. That, in itself, needs to be addressed.

Be under no illusion: the situation in the Red sea speaks to the wider issue of the importance of maritime security, which affects the entire world. Although we are part of NATO and we can draw on the support of many allies from around the world to help police the situation in the Red sea, demand for such support will only increase, especially as the high north is used more frequently as a passage for trade during the summer months, in which China is already showing great interest.

The idea that an arc that seems to emanate from or be influenced by Iran is forming around the disruption of maritime trade cannot be dismissed. As has already been mentioned, Iran has an influence on the Houthis in Yemen and on Hezbollah, and we know it is arming Russia. The Russians are doing everything they can to stop grain getting out of Ukraine. The blocking of the Red sea will impede the ability of vital food stocks to get to many areas of the world, leading to starvation, not least in countries such as Lebanon, which is unstable as it stands and has a huge economic crisis. Lebanon has not recovered from the explosions at its grain silos and relies heavily on grain from Ukraine, but it would suit Iran’s overall objective in the region to cause instability in another country neighbouring Israel.

As my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns made clear, we are not willing to tolerate these tiny activities in which Iran takes part. However, we have to be aware that we always look at the issues with western eyes. When those countries look east, they have allies—Russia has been able to trade with many counties to its south and east—and western sanctions only go so far.

I am confident colleagues want to speak in the debate and further develop these ideas. The situation in the Red sea is another flash-point warning that we must invest further in our maritime capability so that we can secure and keep open trade routes that affect the entire world. The investment that we make now has a direct impact on our constituents and their ability to deal with the cost of living crisis, because is not only those who are thousands of miles away who are affected by the situation; it has an impact on even the corner shops in our villages.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 4:47, 24 January 2024

The freedom of navigation, maritime security and upholding international law are fundamental principles, and this country, along with international partners, has a duty to uphold them. We have heard about the economic consequences. The disruption caused by what is happening in the Red sea affects peace not only there but throughout the region.

As the Defence Secretary and the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee said, there are complex and historical issues that will need political solutions in due course. These are long-standing disputes with complex origins, whether that be the interference of colonial powers in the past; communal, religious or ethnic rivalries; or the struggle for oil and other natural resources. I do not claim to be an expert, but there are certainly parallels with what happened in the 1960s, with the North Yemen civil war and the Aden emergency—UK forces occupied Aden from 1839 to 1967—and many of the issues have ancient origins.

However, I add a note of caution. I know exactly what has been said by many speakers so far in relation to conflating the actions of the Houthis in Yemen with what is happening in Israel and Palestine. Nobody should be so naive as to think that the motives of the Houthis are humanitarian or unselfish. As the Defence Secretary said, the Houthis are entirely opportunistic in what they are doing, but that is not necessarily the way that it is seen on the Arab street, or by our constituents, so we must address that issue head on. The priority given to dealing with attacks on shipping in the Red sea should also, as many of my constituents say to me, be given to dealing with attacks on human life in Gaza and wherever else, including in Yemen.

Let us look at what the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s questions. If I understood him correctly, he set a number of tests that had to be met before there could be a ceasefire in Gaza: all hostages should be released—presumably he means Israeli and Palestinian hostages; Hamas should disarm and disappear from Gaza, so as not to be in a position to threaten Israel or anyone else; and the Palestinian Authority should take over the role of governance there. Nobody would be more pleased than I if those three criteria were met. Indeed, I am sure that hostage release and swaps will be part of any ceasefire, even a temporary one, but how realistic is it to expect that Hamas will disappear overnight or that, to use their own phraseology, the Palestinian Authority will ride into Gaza on the back of Israeli tanks? I do not believe that that is a realistic assessment of where we need to go before a ceasefire occurs.

Today, the Prime Minister was asked by the leader of the Scottish National party—this question is often asked of the Government—whether he believed that war crimes had been committed in Gaza. That is not a difficult question. Yes, it is absolutely true that there are restrictions on journalists and international observers going into Gaza, but there is enough coming out of Gaza to see that it is not an exhaustive list. None the less, many leading international jurists have seen deprivation of life, collective punishment, arbitrary detention, denial of basic services including healthcare, forced displacement and ethnic cleansing. Simply to reply, as any Government spokesman does, that Israel should comply with international humanitarian law, is not sufficient. The question is: is Israel complying in that way?

Today, I noted that a 200-page opinion piece, published by Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights but authored by independent jurists, found that in Gaza, persecution—a crime against humanity—had been committed more intensely since 7 October, but that it goes back to 2007, when the siege of Gaza began. If the Government’s position is to be credible they must address those events. What is happening in Gaza is extraordinary: 1% of the population—25,000 people—have been killed in three months under the most horrific circumstances. We heard the shadow Defence Secretary describe that in his opening remarks, and there are strong parallels with what is going on.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

On international law, let us face it: international humanitarian law is the last resort, when other things have gone wrong. Perhaps the side that we politicians can take is that of morality. What is the right thing to do? What is the humanitarian thing to do? What should we do about human misery? That is why the immediate bilateral ceasefire is so important. There is a choice. The International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court will be looking at the war crimes, and it is right to let the courts do their job, but the Government could also have made a moral judgment. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I think I always agree with the hon. Member on this issue, if not on others. She has clear personal knowledge of it, and is under particular strain because her extended family are in Gaza. I pay tribute to her ability to maintain the objectivity that she has just shown in her comments.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

We have just had a debate in Westminster Hall on human rights, and Gaza came up. During the debate it was revealed that the Foreign Office had sought evidence from its legal advisers on the legality of actions that have been taken by Israel, going back to 10 November. We did not receive a satisfactory answer from the Minister responding to that debate, but should the Government not publish that advice? I also understand that since the new Foreign Secretary arrived he has asked for a review of that legal advice.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I also agree with my hon. Friend.

The deaths that continue to occur daily in Gaza have so far been mostly the result of military action, but we have reached a point where the number of deaths through privation and disease is overtaking them. There is a strong parallel with what happened in Yemen, where about 150,000 people—mainly civilians—have been killed over the course of the civil war that began in 2014. At least another 200,000 have died through disease and privation as a consequence of the civil war, and we are at that tipping point in Gaza. Yes, those are higher numbers, but they are from a much longer period. Many of the same arguments apply, and I do not think any Member present would not wish to see an end to the suffering in both Yemen and Gaza. We need a ceasefire and an end to hostilities, and pressure from the UK alongside partners could play a much bigger role in achieving that.

Secondly, we need aid and reconstruction, but that requires a more permanent peace, because many donors, including EU and UK donors, who have contributed to the reconstruction in the past have seen the money wasted as a result of further military action. Better governance is also needed, and support for civil society. One of the most cynical things that has happened since the terrible, tragic events of 7 October—we all feel for the people of Israel for what they suffered then—is that the response has been not just to go after Hamas but to destroy civilian neighbourhoods and civil society. Destroying law courts, destroying the Parliament, and destroying the records office appears designed to make Gaza ungovernable. That has to be addressed as well.

One could make exactly the same points in relation to Yemen. These are two of the great catastrophes going on in the world. There may be points where we do not want to link the two, but there are clear points where we do. What puts Gaza in a different category than Yemen, is that we are dealing with occupation. Following his statement yesterday, I asked the Prime Minister when the UK will recognise a Palestinian state. Unsurprisingly, he gave an answer that will be familiar to everyone present, and said that

“we will recognise a Palestinian state at a time that best serves the peace process.”—[Official Report, 23 January 2024;
Vol. 744, c. 166.]

That time is now, or nearly now, because it is impossible to have serious negotiations towards peace unless they are between two sovereign states, notwithstanding conditions in Gaza and, increasingly, conditions in the west bank as well.

Let us not pretend that the recognition of a Palestinian state would put Israel and Palestine on an even keel, but without it as a precondition of the negotiations, they simply will not get off the ground. I hope we see that change in position. There is strong support not just for our military, but for the diplomatic initiatives that the UK is doing in the middle east.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee

Order. I have given the hon. Member a lot of latitude, as he is focused on one aspect, but the debate is on the situation in the Red sea. If he could direct his attention towards that subject, I would be extremely grateful.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I should have taken your advice, Mr Deputy Speaker, rather than the advice of the shadow Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend John Healey, at the beginning of the debate. You interrupt me at an appropriate point, because I am concluding my remarks. There is strong support from all sides, but we need to go further. Britain’s historical responsibility in the region requires us to make that additional diplomatic effort.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research 5:00, 24 January 2024

I congratulate Andy Slaughter on a very wide-ranging speech, albeit somewhat remote from the situation in the Red sea, as you correctly pointed out, Mr Deputy Speaker. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the new Defence Secretary, who is not in his place, and the shadow Defence Secretary, John Healey, who both spoke with great care, diplomacy and sense. They fulfilled precisely what this place ought to be about, namely His Majesty’s Government laying out their views and the loyal Opposition scrutinising what they have done.

Before I say anything else, I make it clear that I strongly support the strikes in the Red sea and all the remarks made by my hon. Friends, most of whom are much better informed on these matters than me. I strongly support the strikes, the way they were carried out and the reasoning for them.

If I may, I will take a slightly different approach—rather than simply the diplomatic, foreign affairs and military approaches—and look at the way in which the strikes were ordered. Particularly after the first strike, a great many people, including a number of people in this House—perhaps we will hear from the Liberal Democrats later on—were of the view that it was quite wrong. “The House should be recalled,” they said. “We should have a vote in this House on whether the strikes were justified,” it was said. “It was quite wrong that Parliament should not have the opportunity to express our views on the most important matter facing us all, namely warfare,” it was said. I am glad to say that the Government resisted those calls, and the way in which the strikes were ordered seemed—I will come back to precisely why in a moment—to be absolutely right.

I have been talking about this subject for some time. Indeed, I wrote a book about it, which, if I may say so, is available in all good bookshops. When I expressed the view in a debate some 15 or 20 years ago that it was wrong that the House of Commons should vote on going to war, it was greeted widely with scorn. Everybody said, “That’s absurd; that’s a ridiculous thing to say.” We can check Hansard for that. Indeed, when Lord Hague wrote an extensive article on the matter, he said very straightforwardly and simply, “When we go to war, the House of Commons and the House of Lords must decide on it. It must be done by a vote.” I am glad to say that last week the noble Lord Hague went through a damascene conversion. He has changed his mind on the matter and now entirely supports my view. Equally in my view, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which wrote a report on these matters, got it wrong. It said that it thought the House of Commons should have a vote before deployment. I take a stringently different view, because there is a large number of very important reasons why that should not be the case.

First, all pretence of secrecy would of course be destroyed. We would have a debate in this place, and the enemy would know precisely what we were planning to do. Secondly, we could not take that kind of decision without consulting our neighbours. The decision might well be part of a NATO strike or, in this case, a joint UK-US strike. Are we ready to ask NATO, the United Nations or the US to wait while we discuss the matter here? What happens if we vote against it here, but those wherever else vote in favour?

Thirdly, we are galloping down a very dangerous road if we ask the Prime Minister to come to this House and share with us the secret intelligence, legal advice and strategic knowledge on which he makes these difficult decisions, as he would be exposing many of our professional supporters to criticism or, indeed, to attack one way or another. It would be quite wrong if he did so. I do not want to know the secret intelligence. I do not want to know the legal advice. I want the right to scrutinise what the Government have done after they have done it.

It is also extremely important that warfare should not be politicised. If we vote in this House either to go to war or not to do so, we as MPs are taking a view of it. We are sending people to war while squabbling among ourselves about whether the war is right, wrong or indifferent. That seems to me quite wrong from the point of view of the families, particularly of those who are killed, who would then say, “Well, one party or the other took a strongly different view from you.”

Before I come to the final reason for my strong views on this matter, I must point out to the House that, of the 274 wars that England has taken part in since 1750, we have voted in this House on only two. Only twice in all those years have we voted prior to deployment. The first time was in 2003, when Tony Blair asked this House to vote on Iraq and whipped the Labour party into supporting the war. The Conservative party was also whipped; I am glad to say I rebelled against the Whip, but none the less we were whipped into supporting the war, and what a bad decision that was—quite the wrong decision.

The second time in all that 300-year to 400-year history that we had a vote in this House on going to war was before a potential Syria strike in 2013, which did not then occur. The House voted against it, and very much of the bloodshed, the corruption and the disaster that we see in Syria to this day comes about as a result of those votes. America followed us the next day and equally did not strike against the use of chemical weapons. That was a wrong decision made by this House, as in my view was the Iraq decision of 2003, and those are the only two occasions when, prior to deployment, we have voted.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

I am afraid I do. I agree with my hon. Friend’s main thrust, that there is no doubt that the Prime Minister and the Executive have the right to take initial action and seek support afterwards. Having said that, the case of Syria in particular has become a byword for a wrong and terrible decision, because the ghastly Assad remained in power, but the alternative would have been another Islamist swamp such as we saw in Libya. It was because there was a strong feeling in the House that Syria would have been another Iraq or another Libya that there was such pressure to have a vote. For my part, I think the result was absolutely right.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point: he thinks we should not have had strikes against Syria, and therefore he thinks we should have had a vote on the matter, because the vote went against the strikes. However, let us imagine there was some other very important or essential war, in the moment before a general election, with a very small majority on one side or the other. That war would then become political. He might well find under those circumstances that a war that he strongly believed in and wanted to support was voted down by this House, rather than by the generals or the Prime Minister.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa)

Perhaps both my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend Sir Julian Lewis will agree that, while it can be risky and dangerous to intervene, it can also be risky and dangerous not to intervene. Perhaps they would both agree on that point.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Incidentally, I forgot to mention that I very much welcome him to the Front Bench. He is doing a good job standing in for the Foreign Secretary. I hope he will take note of the Procedure Committee’s report this afternoon on how a Secretary of State who is in the House of Lords should or should not be questioned by this House, and that the Government will accept the Procedure Committee’s proposal, namely that the Foreign Secretary should be called to the Bar of the House to take questions.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

I think I support what my hon. Friend says. Of the two times we voted on military action, the first time we were misled and the second time we were stung by having been misled, so we went the wrong way. As someone who was quite close to the Libyan conflict, as I saw it play out with ISIS in northern Iraq, I think we should have taken military action in principle over the use of chemical weapons. By not doing so, regardless of the outcome of the Syrian war, we weakened the idea of western resolve. I know it can be a bit of a cliché, but if we have a red line and dictators ignore it, we end up in a world of pain.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

Both my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend Sir Julian Lewis are seeking to involve me in a debate about a matter that happened some 10 or 15 years ago and is well beyond the scope of the debate. My point is not about whether or not striking against Syria was right, wrong or indifferent, but about the fact that we in this House chose not to do so. The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell, was absolutely right to say that not doing something is often as bad as doing something.

We in this House had a shortage of information—my hon. Friend Bob Seely knows a lot about these things, and I am ready to admit that I do not—of briefings, of secret intelligence and of legal advice, but we chose to take that decision. It seems to me that, in the extremely dangerous world that we live in, we will see an awful lot of these decisions taken in the months and years to come. The way in which matters were handled this time shows that the pendulum, which had swung from the divine right of Kings in the middle ages, whereby the King decided on his own, to the time in 2003 and 2013 when we allowed this House to vote, albeit not necessarily sensibly, has swung back to precisely where it ought to be—namely, that if this House votes on something, it is, by that means, diminished. We cannot then hold the Government to account; we cannot come back and say, “You, Mr Government, have got that wrong,” because we voted for it. And if we had voted for it, the Secretary of State would surely say, “But you voted for it!”

Our whole purpose in this House and this Chamber is to scrutinise what the Government have done, hold them to account and, if necessary, remove them when they do the wrong thing.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

My hon. Friend mentioned the world becoming a more dangerous place. We have known throughout the history of the NATO alliance that deterrence is one of the best ways to keep the peace. That is why we have the continuous at-sea deterrence: nobody knows where or when it may be used. To further his argument, if we want to keep the peace, is there not far greater deterrence in a decision being taken immediately rather than with 24 or 48 hours’ notice?

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

I am not certain that my right hon. Friend, whom, incidentally, I congratulate on his knighthood, has quite grasped the subtlety of the point that I was trying to make, which was not so much about the substance of defence but about the way in which we take decisions in this House.

The point I was making was that if we vote on something, as happened to the Labour party over Iraq in 2003, it then becomes extremely difficult to criticise the Government for what they do subsequently. It is right that we should scrutinise the Government, but we should not vote on these matters. We should have huge debates, statements and votes after deployment, but the moment that we allow ourselves to be forced into whipped votes before deployment, we are, by definition, emasculating this House. It is quite wrong from the point of view of defence and from the point of view of parliamentary scrutiny. We demand the right to scrutinise the Government, and we can do that only if we do not vote on the wars.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I am getting slightly anxious about time. My advice is that colleagues stick to a maximum of eight minutes. If we cannot achieve that, I will have to put on a time limit, but I would rather not. I call Jeff Smith.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Clean Power and Consumers) 5:12, 24 January 2024

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker—you will be pleased to know that I intend to be brief. Originally, I was going to speak about a number of issues, including the situation in Ukraine, but I am grateful to be able to comment briefly on the situation in the Red sea and the region.

As my right hon. Friend John Healey indicated from the Front Bench, Labour supports, as do I, the targeted and limited strikes on the Houthi military targets in Yemen. We should be clear about the nature of the attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, which were opportunistic, as my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter has just pointed out. We should reject the Houthi claim that UK and US airstrikes on their positions are related to the conflict in Gaza.

Nevertheless, there are things that we must continue to say about the situation in Gaza. We watched in horror the attacks on 7 October, and have watched in horror the level of suffering and deaths in Gaza since. We urgently need a ceasefire to end that suffering, we need the release of hostages, and we need urgently to address the biggest humanitarian crisis in that region in a generation. People are facing starvation and thirst, and are without medical assistance. I pay tribute to all the organisations that are carrying out humanitarian work in the most difficult conditions. I have been getting regular updates from Medical Aid for Palestinians, which does great work there given the impossible situation that some of its workers have been put in. Of course, the situation is made worse by the fact that Gaza is not somewhere people can get out of. I encourage the Government to keep pressing the Israeli and Egyptian authorities to open the crossings for aid, but also to allow the people who need to get out to do so. I have raised with the Minister the particular case of a constituent of mine whose wife and baby daughter are on the border at Rafah. We need to keep pressing for them to be able to get out of that crossing and out of danger.

On the specific issue of the Red sea and the strikes on Houthi targets, the UN Security Council was strong in its condemnation of the attacks on shipping by the Houthis, and we join in that condemnation. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne said, we cannot afford for those attacks to continue and go unanswered, and there is a cost to non-intervention. Freedom of navigation is an important principle, and there are innocent seafarers from around the world on the commercial ships that pass through that vital route.

At this point, I need to declare an interest: I am very proud of my nephew, who is training to be a commercial nautical engineer. He is working for Maersk, one of the companies whose ships have been attacked, and as any family member from any country would, I want him and workers like him to be protected from terrorist attacks if they have to make a journey via the Red sea. Innocent commercial shipping workers from around the world are put at risk by the reckless and illegal attacks of the Houthis, and those workers need protection, as do our brave Navy personnel.

It may well be impossible to completely stop Houthi attacks. We know that the Houthis have been hardened by the long civil war in Yemen and have been subject to a long history of attacks by the Saudi-led coalition, so they know about being attacked, but that does not mean that we should not do what we can to degrade and limit their capacity to carry out attacks. Those attacks cannot go unanswered. However, as a number of right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out, we also need a diplomatic strategy to stop the risk of escalation, making it clear that these are targeted and proportional attacks that do not aim to escalate a wider conflict—that is something we need to avoid at all costs. Yes, we support targeted action to protect freedom of navigation and to protect civilians and our naval personnel, but we need a political process towards a sustainable peace and security in Yemen, in Gaza, and in the region. I encourage the Government to continue to work for that political solution.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Conservative, North Somerset 5:17, 24 January 2024

I begin by paying tribute to all of our armed forces personnel who have been involved in action in the Red sea. They always rise to any challenge asked of them with professionalism and courage, and are a great example of the fact that our armed forces are so much more than the hardware we invest in.

I accept the point that the Secretary of State for Defence made at the outset of the debate—there is no direct link between the conflict in Gaza and the Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red sea—but we would be wrong not to accept that there is interconnectivity between the tensions in different parts of the middle east today, and we need to understand the context of those tensions.

Back in 2020, the Trump Administration brokered the Abraham accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and then Morocco. It was a great exercise in leadership to bring reconciliation to a part of the world that had seen too much conflict for too long. It has resulted in a big improvement: both economically, in terms of business and trade between the countries involved, and in people-to-people relationships. For example, around half a million Israelis visited Dubai in the past few years, something that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago.

However, there was always one country that did not want the Abraham accords to succeed: Iran. It did not want those accords to succeed because it did not believe in a two-state solution, because it did not believe that Israel should exist. Ayatollah Khamenei has been tremendously consistent in his views about the purity of the Islamic revolution, his detestation of the west, and his contempt for the existence of the state of Israel. Anyone who is interested should read the book “Reading Khamenei” by Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Iran was never going to want to see peace between the Arab states and Israel, because that threatened Iran’s hegemony—as it saw it—over the Islamic parts of the middle east.

The big question was always: what would Saudi Arabia do? It is a major player in the security of both the Red sea and the Gulf. When I saw the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia on Fox News saying that every day he believed Saudi Arabia was closer to peace and reconciliation with Israel, my first reaction was that Iran would react against it, whether through its proxies: Hamas in Gaza, funded and armed by Iran; Hezbollah in Lebanon, funded and armed by Iran; or the Houthis in Yemen, funded and armed by Iran. In fact, it turns out that we now see all three being active, and we need to understand that that “axis of resistance” against the west, as Iran calls it, is something it will keep going as long as it possibly can. It will not seek peace; it will resist peace at all times.

In the Red sea, we are absolutely right to say—as many Members have done, and I do not want to go over that territory again—that the Houthi threat is a specific one that we must deal with. Some 95% of UK exports and imports go by sea, and in the whole global trading environment, 15% of all global trade passes through the Bab al-Mandab strait. As many Members have said, not to act would leave international maritime law in tatters, and having no deterrence there whatsoever would risk a bout of global inflation. We saw what the disruption from the conflict in Ukraine could do, and the same would be true were there to be permanent disruption in the Red sea. We would have disruption of vital supply chains, including food and the medicines that so many people depend on. So we were right to take action.

However, we need to come back to understanding the role of Iran in this and other processes. We have seen Iran develop drones that are sent to Russia by Iran Air to oppress the people of Ukraine, yet Iran Air still flies out of Heathrow airport in the United Kingdom. Why is it tolerated? We have seen the money moved around the global financial system by Iran to fund its proxies, but we still have two Iranian banks trading in the City of London within a stone’s throw of the Bank of England. Why is that happening? As the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns, said, we have videos of antisemitic speeches by IRGC generals being investigated by the Charity Commission. The regulator is looking at footage of “Death to Israel” chants on an Islamic charity’s UK premises. Two of the videos show talks by IRGC leaders about an apocalyptic war on the Jews. Again as my hon. Friend said, the IRGC actually took responsibility this week for a military attack on a foreign territory, which is something they have not had the audacity to do before.

So I ask again: why is the IRGC not a proscribed organisation in this country? It is clearly involved in a wide range of activity that is dangerous to Britain’s national interests and our security. I have never once, when I have raised this issue in the House, been given a clear answer from those on the Front Branch about why we will not ban Iran Air, why we will not stop Iranian banks in the City and why we will not proscribe the IRGC. I live in a little bit of extra hope that we may get an answer tonight.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

The answer that the Government have so far given on the IRGC is that it is an arm of the state, and it is very difficult to proscribe an arm of the state. I am not saying I agree with that answer, but that is the answer given. Is there a way around it?

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Conservative, North Somerset

It is an answer, but it is not a very convincing one. I hope we will get a better answer from the Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell, who I know is well capable of giving us answers in greater detail than that.

We face a choice in the Red sea and beyond: we are either going to deal with the political problems we face or, rather than the rosy future that the Abraham accords offered, we can go back to 1971, with a radicalised generation in the middle east and return to all the problems of hijacks, Munich and all the things we thought we had left behind us.

We need to drive a solution. As the Prime Minister said earlier this week, there must be a commitment to a two-state solution, and it is not acceptable for anyone to put a political block on that. We need security guarantees to be given for Israel and the Israeli people, who have a right to live in peace, and for any future Palestinian state. That will require an international peace agreement. It will require the United States, Saudi Arabia and others all to be willing to commit to that peace. It will require a new way of looking at politics in the region, and it is right that Hamas cannot be part of that if there is to be any way forward, and there will need to be massive economic reconstruction in the area.

In conclusion, let me say what I have said before in the House: when we look at the whole region, we see that peace is not just the absence of war or conflict, but the freedom from the fear of conflict, oppression or terror. It comes with concepts of rights that have to apply to all people—not just rights and dignity, but enforceable rights and dignity. Only when all the people of the middle east and the wider region have access to all those things will we have any chance of achieving the peace that is not just part of their security, but part of our security.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 5:25, 24 January 2024

It is an honour to follow Sir Liam Fox, because I agree so much with what he just said, and in particular with the way he set out how Iran decides to back many different groups that will cause chaos. That root cause itself needs to be addressed.

Although I am half Palestinian, we lived in Jordan for five years just after King Hussein passed away, and we were in Egypt just after the Arab spring, so my link to the region is not just by blood; we were there. When we talk about the middle east, it sometimes feels as though we are playing 3D chess, while spinning around most of the time, trying to understand who is in, who is out and what is happening. It is fair to say that the region has been poorly led and poorly served by its politicians for very many decades. Arabs are proud, intelligent, capable people who have every right to live in dignity and security, as does anyone else. I am sorry to say that there have been elements of the debate about Israel and Palestine that seem to forget that. When we talk about peace in the region, we often omit that Palestinians need to be at the heart of it as much as Israelis.

We talk about Arab-led, and yes absolutely—Arab-led. Let me draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I went to the Manama dialogue at the invitation of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. When we were there, we heard from the Bahraini Foreign Minister, who made clear the case for why peace and two states is not just in the interests of Israel and Palestine, but is in Bahrain’s interests as well. It is a regional interest, and the reason for that—this is linked to what previous speakers have said—is because this is the biggest toy that Iran and other mischief makers in the region have to play with, and they have been playing with it for their own nefarious ends for far too long. They have no real interest in the Palestinian people. Let me be clear: when I speak to other Palestinians, we know that. We know that they are jumping on the bandwagon now. We still talk about the paper tigers of the ’60s, and lots of Arab states will say when it is convenient for them that they will come and ride in our defence. But when at that final moment it comes to who backs us, the answer is, “Well, no one”, and so we rely on ourselves. That is the view of pretty much every Palestinian I know.

That said, it does not mean that we do not need help, so this is my plea for help. Two states is not just in the interests of Israelis and Palestinians. Let me emphasise Israelis as well, because the peace camp in Israel has taken an enormous blow. Let us remind ourselves that very many peace activists have been taken hostage and been disgracefully raped. Hamas is no friend to the Palestinian cause. But this war has driven ordinary, peace-loving people into the arms of the extremes of the debate, and when we look at the polls—one was done very recently—we see that people are now backing Hamas and backing Netanyahu, when before they did not. We must reflect on that.

Why has that happened? These are the same people as before 7 October. The reason it has happened is because we have allowed it to happen. The longer this war is waged in the way it has been waged, and in the way that it feels so one-sided, with the humanity at the centre of it not at its heart, by the western world in particular, the more abandoned ordinary people feel. And when people feel abandoned, that is when the centre ground where the dialogue happens is vacated.

My plea to this House continues to be to not forget the Palestinian cause. Yes, I am here with my Palestinian scarf and my blood, but I say that not for me but for regional security. I put it to the Minister that the cause is in Britain’s security interests, and we can see that for ourselves. When we say that the region is a tinderbox, we do not mean that one thing is causal on another, but that there are multiple flashpoints, and all it takes is for one thing to go wrong and we find that they all blow up at the same time. That is why the debate and earlier vote were important. It is true that the Houthis wanted this to happen, but that risk of escalation is real. There was a true and legitimate concern that we had to act, and not acting is also acting. We back what the Government have done, but what happens if things start to go wrong? What if that nuclear reaction starts to get out of control and we end up in a situation where that tinderbox has been set alight? The worry I have is that whenever we have questioned the Prime Minister on how we come off this ledge, we have not had that assurance on what the plan is. We still do not have that plan.

On plans, the recognition of the state of Palestine has never been more important. I talk about an immediate bilateral ceasefire to bring the people from the extremes back to the centre and to start to heal some of the wounds, but a ceasefire is not the end; a ceasefire only ever freezes a conflict. If we want to say, “This is the last time”—I sincerely believe that across this House there is broad agreement on that point—we need to get serious about how we bring the two states back to the table, and quickly.

We have only to look at what is happening in America and the chances of Trump coming back to see that our window of opportunity—that is in terms not just of public opinion, which is at its height, but of an America that is willing to be a willing partner—is fast diminishing. We know that the European Union is talking about a conference. We know that the Arab states are also talking. My question to the Minister is: who are we talking to? How quickly do we think we can get this twin track or whatever we want to call it off the ground? As part of that, I urge him, as I have in previous debates, to recognise Palestine sooner rather than later.

Putting my Palestine hat back on for a moment, all we Palestinians want is the power to have what all other countries have. We want our own votes at the United Nations. We want to raise our own money to rebuild and to educate our children. It is not the case that we are not capable; we just do not have the tools. What we want above all is to live in dignity alongside our Israeli cousins. It is the scars that we so sadly share that will bind us together. Like scars, they are not comfortable, but often when the bone grows back it is stronger than before. That is how both peoples feel. They need to be given the tools as equal partners to be able to resolve this conflict. Without a very early, full-fledged recognition of the Palestinian state—I argue that should be first, not last in the process—we will never get there.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley 5:33, 24 January 2024

It is an honour to follow Layla Moran. She spoke wisely on many of the issues, and I suspect the Minister will have listened carefully.

I start by thanking all our personnel currently operating in the eastern Mediterranean and east of Suez. Even in peaceful times it is an area that calls for the highest professionalism and alertness. When we are facing the challenges that we now have, the stress on them is even greater. Our interest in the area around Yemen predates the Suez canal because of its place in our original sea route to India around the cape. The Aden protectorate, where I was born, was a major trading base. That has continued, with 15% of world shipping and 30% of global container traffic depending on freedom of navigation in the Red sea through the Bab al-Mandab straits.

We must be realistic about the Houthis’ motivations in their attacks and piracy. The forgotten civil war in Yemen has been going on since 2013, with a ceasefire in place for much of the last 15 months, yet Yemen—even more so the Houthis—seemed to explode into our consciousness in this country only with the attacks on shipping, although it is regularly debated in this place.

The ceasefire in Yemen has not been perfect. Acts of violence have carried on at a low level. The Houthis have gained much from the peace talks, although they have an appalling human rights record, using sexual violence against women and the exploitation of children—the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee spoke about that. I am concerned that the entire ceasefire is now jeopardised because of the Houthis’ actions and our response. In addition, the Houthis are clear that they see a linkage between their actions in the Red sea and the situation in Gaza. I say to them that attacking ships will not help the Palestinian cause.

Targeted strikes by the US, the UK and allies will continue to protect shipping. However, the consequences of a prolonged series of strikes on the Yemeni people will be appalling. I cannot stress enough the catastrophe that will follow if the Houthis shut out humanitarian aid, if the ceasefire collapses or if navigation around the Yemeni coast becomes impossible. Yemen imports 90% of its food, and 17 million people are already at risk of famine. Seventy per cent the Yemeni population live in the areas that the Houthis currently control, and financing of the UN humanitarian response plan dropped from 55% of requirement in 2022 to 38% in 2023—and it has not even been announced for 2024. Most of Yemen’s imports come through the Hodeidah port, so if the port becomes inoperable, the consequences will be severe.

I urge extreme caution about any move to proscribe Ansar Allah, because there is a risk that the following humanitarian effort may be destroyed. Fifty per cent of humanitarian funding comes from the United States, and most of that is needed in Houthi-controlled areas. The United States has been mindful of that in applying its special designation on the Houthis and, having raised that with the Prime Minister yesterday, I am sure that our Government will be cautious, too.

Even with a ceasefire in place, the threat has remained to everyone in Yemen because the economy is so badly damaged. Collapsing and insecure societies breed radicalism and become threats to global security, so we must keep up our diplomatic efforts to save the ceasefire, and we should be cautious about seeing Iran behind every action that the Houthis take. Iran does not have full control of their actions—they very much act independently—although Iran could stop providing intelligence, weapons and finance and work towards de-escalation in the area.

The Houthis are an organisation that includes many people who defected from the previous Yemeni regime, sadly trained and armed by the west. The remains of western munitions are being used against the coalition supporting the Yemeni Government. The Houthis co-operated with the UN on the Safer tanker, which posed a huge pollution threat to the entire Red Sea, and they have been allowing humanitarian agencies to carry on their work. It is therefore concerning that they are now threatening to shut those out agencies.

Equally, we must ensure that any sanctions that we impose do not stop humanitarian access. The UK has been a leader in aid, and I am grateful to the Government for their support for the Yemeni people. I pay tribute to the UN special envoy Hans Grundberg, whom I met last year, and who is working incredibly hard for a final peace process.

How we respond to a crisis at the pinch points either side of Bab al-Mandab will be watched by other potential transgressors eyeing other opportunities. This is a key test of our return east of Suez. It is a strategy that commits us to respond to threats on the Malacca strait, the South China sea or the seas around Taiwan. It requires our alliances such as AUKUS to be militarily effective and not just defence export opportunities. Those alliances need to be founded on a belief by our partners that we will show up to bolster them when they are the first line of defence.

We can only project power from a secure base in the UK. We are responding to our personnel challenges with the excellent work done by Rick Haythornthwaite. However, we need to see results, and the major issues of service accommodation persist, along with niggly things such as lack of free access to of wi-fi on bases. Our personnel need secure and happy family lives at home. When they deploy, their effectiveness depends on knowing that their loved ones will be cared for. If we want people to fight for our values, we must ensure that they feel valued themselves. Ships, tanks and aircraft without crews are useless.

Finally, while we are right to act to deter Houthi violence against international shipping, I urge the House to remember that this is one chapter in a long and tragic civil war. So far, our attitude has been supportive to the Yemeni people who are suffering so much. I hope that will continue.

Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford Scottish National Party, Ross, Skye and Lochaber 5:39, 24 January 2024

It is a pleasure to follow Mrs Drummond. I hope the Minister and the House listened to her wise insights.

I think there is a broad consensus across the House that we are absolutely right to take action to defend international shipping. The Houthis have been called out this afternoon and it is right that we do so. We also need to recognise the humanitarian crisis that exists in Sudan and Yemen, and the wider security concerns that we have in the region. There have been no honourable actors in Yemen and it is the population of that country that has suffered. Famine has gone hand in hand with war in that country.

As has been mentioned by others, we need to guard against any threat of escalation across the region. We need to think about the nature of the threats we face together with allies, and the importance of leadership not just in dealing with terrorist threats from the Houthis but in diplomatic action across the region. Acting together with our friends and allies in Europe and, as has been mentioned, through the agency of the United Nations, we must recognise the dangers of sleepwalking into wider conflict and the bad actors we face; the intentions of Iran; the challenges we face with Putin and Russia; and the challenges we face with China and North Korea.

It is important to ensure that we deliver peace and stability throughout the world. When we add to that the threats of disinformation and misinformation, and the polarisation that has been seen through much of our politics, these are issues that go beyond the Red sea. It is important, whether we are talking about Yemen or the middle east, that we win hearts and minds, because we have to challenge the spiralling regional instability.

Today, when we consider the Red sea, it has to be seen as part of a broader landscape of instability and the geopolitical threats we face around the world. There is no link, as has been said by many others, to what is going on in Gaza, but we do need to reflect on what is going on there. The awful events of 7 October last year will forever remain with us all, and of course there must be peace and security for Israel, but it is time to recognise that Palestinians have rights and that the Palestinian state must be recognised. Dealing with that threat and removing Hamas does not mean having to flatten Gaza. We are now living with the humanitarian crisis that we see as a result of that.

It should shame us all that we are now talking about in excess of 25,000 Palestinians who have perished since last October—innocent civilians who have been targeted for what? We must not lose sight of the legitimate rights of the Israelis and Palestinians to find peace and harmony together. To deliver a two-state solution is the only way to resolve conflict in that war-torn region. We must redouble our efforts to make sure that, out of this crisis, we deliver peace and hope for the Palestinians, Israelis and all of us.

Over the last few months, we have watched the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East seek to continue its valiant efforts to provide sanctuary for people in Gaza. Sadly, too many UN personnel, as well as civilians, have lost their lives in this conflict. The UN humanitarian agencies have done their best on the frontline, but the UN Security Council has been paralysed, as it has been for decades, through the power of veto. The time has come to provide proper leadership and to question how these agencies should operate.

How should we get the collaboration necessary to deal with the challenges in the Red sea, Gaza and elsewhere? We need to recognise that the effectiveness of the UN to deliver has been blunted by the power of the veto. My contention is that the UN faces barriers that inhibit its delivery. At its core, the problem is so often a lack of leadership and the use of the veto by any of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

When we consider that the provision of the veto was not part of the UN charter, it is right that we now question its use. When we consider that this power sits only with the five permanent members of the Security Council, we have to question the suitability of the existence of that power. Surely it is time to reform the Security Council and its membership, and it is certainly time to remove the power of the veto. We should bear in mind that four resolutions on the subject of Gaza have been stymied during the last few months.

When we look at conflict around the world, we should remember the threat that the influence of bad actors, be they Iran, Russia or China and North Korea, present to the maintaining of world order. The challenges in the Red sea cannot be seen in isolation; we face multiple threats across the globe. We must remind ourselves that in Europe, Ukraine must prevail against Russian aggression. We need to work in a spirit of collaboration, within Europe, with our NATO allies and globally through the United Nations, to support Ukraine.

We also need to recognise that democracy itself is being pushed back and is under attack in so many parts of the world. Tellingly, when so many people in the world face elections this year, faith and trust in democracy, and—let us be under no illusion—democracy itself are under threat throughout the world. The electoral cycle this year has enormous implications for co-operation, peace and security, but also for economic prosperity, for dealing with the challenge of climate change and making this an opportunity for sustainable economic growth. That is important here, and it is important in Yemen.

For us, NATO has been instrumental in providing peace and security in Europe, but now we face a threat of decoupling from our largest ally, the United States, on the back of indifference from political leaders in that country. When political leaders in the US are questioning supporting the cause of peace and stability in Europe against Russian aggression, alarm bells should be ringing. The question of UK and European leadership and the need to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine ought to be self-evident. We need to recognise that taking it for granted that the US is an ally of Europe against Russian aggression in Ukraine may no longer be the default position, and we need to provide the support necessary to enable Ukraine to prevail. Ukraine must ward off Russian aggression, because failure to do so is not just a threat to the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine, but a threat to the rest of Europe.

What does this mean for us in these islands? Europe and all of us in these islands need to think about our own strategic autonomy, and thought must be given to the mechanisms and forums that will allow that to take place. The first and most pressing priority is supporting and arming Ukraine. The central question must be this: what will it take for Ukraine to restore its sovereignty and independence, and how will it do that? We must go beyond the necessary announcements of support for now, and think through the strategic initiatives that will help Ukraine to win. Putin can never win. To put it simply, we provide the resources for Ukraine to win, and those in Ukraine provide our peace and security in Europe. That is the deal. Failure to secure Ukrainian freedom takes us into territory where our wider freedoms in Europe and around the world will be under threat, with an emboldened Putin pushing his expansionist agenda.

I have argued that we in these islands have a part to play in showing leadership, along with our partners and allies in Europe. We have a mutual self-interest in strengthening the capabilities of the United Nations in these challenging times. The risks to peace and security are at a level that we have not witnessed since the second world war. There is the situation in Europe, with the people of Ukraine bearing the brunt of Soviet aggression. There is the crisis in the middle east, in Gaza, with the potential for an ever-widening conflict. There is unrest in many parts of Africa. The drumbeat for war is ever increasing. Democracy is under attack, and indeed in retreat, in much of the world.

Intolerance and division are on the rise. We have to be a voice for good and a voice for reason. Standing up against tyrants and seeking peace, security and stability in a fractious world is the responsibility of all of us. Such leadership is greatly needed both here and abroad, and it is important in that regard that we have a full and informed debate here, and seek to build consensus here and leadership globally with others. History will judge us on how we accept our responsibilities to deliver peace and security in the Red sea and elsewhere.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight 5:49, 24 January 2024

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I will try to wind up after seven minutes. I am mindful that lots of others want to get in. Lots of good speeches today; I just want to start by referring to Layla Moran. I completely agree with what she is saying about a two-state solution. Those friends of Israel who give Netanyahu and the Israeli right an easy ride on this are no friends of Israel, as far as I can see, because all they are doing is making Israel’s long-term future significantly more precarious. Israel’s existence is accepted and guaranteed when there is peace with the Palestinians, and until there is peace with Palestinians, Israel is always going to be under threat of some kind.

Where I differ from the hon. Lady is on her optimism. I would have agreed with her in the 1990s, but there has been so much more awful water under the bridge since then. On Palestinian statehood, I cannot see a good reason not to do it now, but if we had Palestinian statehood now and Hamas immediately took over that Palestinian statehood in the west bank, it would simply undermine the cause of Palestinian statehood. There is a significant problem there and, as Sir Liam Fox rightly pointed out, Iran is behind so much of this.

I want to make a few points in the brief time I have. I want to make reference to the excellent speech made my hon. Friend Mrs Drummond and also the speech of the Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns. There appears to be a growing, significant, provable link between the use of proxy warfare and non-state actors, often used by other states, and the rise in conflict-related sexual violence, which in some parts of the world and some conflicts is now endemic. We saw that with ISIS, which is a non-state actor, and arguably nobody’s proxy, in the use of Yazidi women effectively as the spoils of war until they were raped to death. We have seen it with the abuse of Israeli women by Hamas, but Hamas are also increasingly intolerant in their Islamist attitude towards women in their own society. We have also seen it with the Houthis, with Wagner in Ukraine and with Russian troops. It occasionally involves state troops, as well as non-state actors and proxies, and there is an increasing casualness with which sexual violence is used in conflict, which I think should disturb us all.

The world is moving to a more dangerous place; that is quite clear. It has been becoming more dangerous since 2010. Putin declared his new cold war in his Munich speech in 2007, but we did not want to notice. Unfortunately, everything since then has progressed quite logically from Putin’s point of view, although we have still feigned surprise. I do not know why we do that. Since 2015 we have had a growing China problem with an increasingly intolerant regime under President Xi. There is a battle for humanity under way in the 21st century between open societies and closed societies and between societies where AI and big data will hopefully be used to improve the quality of human life and places such as Iran, China and Russia where AI and big data will increasingly be used to control people and societies and, effectively, in an Orwellian state, to prevent people from rebelling because it will be possible to use algorithms to identify when they are about to rebel or fight back and do something about it. That is the bigger picture that we are dealing with.

It is particularly concerning at the moment that in several areas of the world we have conflicts between united axis powers, if I can call them that. Out of three potential conflicts that are under way at the moment or about to be, Ukraine and Russia is a hot war where the Russians believe that we are directly involved although we believe that we are indirectly involved. That war is fought with cyber, disinformation, espionage and poisoning, and some of that has been happening in the UK. We also have the expansion of China, with it trying to take territory in the South China sea and presenting an increasing threat to Taiwan. Xi has told his army to be ready to take Taiwan within the next three years, if I remember correctly.

In the middle east, Russia’s ally Iran is behind much of what is happening, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset so eloquently said. Iran now has 22 proxies. In Bahrain it has two or three and in Iraq it has at least six, some of which are rocketing UK and US forces. Where else? In Lebanon it has Hezbollah, which is potentially its most powerful proxy. It is strongly aligned to the regime in Syria. That is not a proxy but the regime has been heavily dependent on Iran to fight its wars. Throughout the middle east, the Iranians have built up a web that is a significant threat to us.

We have had conventional wars that we prepared for and fought for, or that we prepared our armed forces to fight and hopefully win, and we have this very black-and-white notion that we are either at peace or we are at war, yet the nature of war is changing. We are living in a world in which we are effectively in a perpetual state of conflict with some nations. Russia sees itself in perpetual conflict with us. There will be periods of hot war and periods of cold war, and we must be prepared as never before. Likewise, we are effectively waging an indirect war against a series of Iranian proxies: Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis and whoever was rocketing us this week in Iraq. China’s power is more economic, but it is using “little blue men” to seize territory in the South China sea—that is in contrast to the “little green men” the Russians used in Crimea. In these key areas of the pre-global war phase, we are beginning to see a form of total war being waged by our adversaries in Ukraine, the middle east and the South China sea.

The Foreign Affairs Committee recently heard some interesting evidence on how Iran is, in many ways, both more unstable and more powerful than at any other time. It has 22 proxies, and it has the material to build and prepare a nuclear weapon within a week. Iran is at a potentially frightening stage but, at the same time, we know it is very unstable and we know that its young people, especially its young women, are hostile to the regime, as never before. Many people in Iran wish ill of the regime, so we are dealing with an Iran that is more aggressively adventurous in its foreign policy, potentially because of its weakness at home.

We have arguably not had enough deterrence, and we need more. Various Members have talked about that in greater deal than I have time to go into now.

All these things—the growing number of black swan moments and the growing instability in the world—are an argument for having a greater sense of strategy. Many people talk about strategy, and there are so many think-tanks in the UK dedicated to strategy. It would be wonderful to see politicians from both sides of the House engaging more in strategic thinking. One of my suggestions for global Britain is that, as well as having a National Security Council to deal with current problems, we should have a national strategy council that is always looking five, 10 or 20 years ahead to identify problems as they come.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 5:57, 24 January 2024

I fully agree with the last point made by Bob Seely. We need those structures.

Before you came into the Chamber, Madam Deputy Speaker, we discussed the nature of this debate and whether we should have a vote. We are taking military action in a region that has been described as a tinderbox by virtually every Member who has spoken. There are just over 20 Members present, and I say this with respect and affection, but most of them are the House’s defence nerds. The reason we do not have more Members present is that this is a discussion, not a debate. There is no decision to be made at the end and, as a result, I do not think the House is taking its responsibilities seriously. I think we are on the edge of real danger in this region, and it could spill over and affect the lives of our constituents. If we are to take military action, I want to take some responsibility as a Member of this House. I want to be able to go back to my constituents and explain how I have exercised that responsibility, which is why I believe we should have a vote.

I was in the Chamber one afternoon when, with even fewer Members present than now, John Reid reported that we were sending troops to Afghanistan. He gave the impression that not a shot would be fired in anger. There was hardly any debate and very little reporting back, but we lost 400 British troops in Afghanistan and tens of thousands of others, and the war went on for more than a decade.

I was also here for the vote on Iraq—we did have a vote then. James Gray said, “Yes, look at that, we made a huge mistake.” It was a huge mistake, but the mistake was that it was a whipped vote. I think that had it been an unwhipped vote, we would not have taken that decision. Sir Julian Lewis mentioned Syria. I was here for that vote, when I think we made the right decision, because we could have been getting into another Iraq situation and still be stuck there, with a huge loss of life—a loss of British life, as well as of others. That is why I believe that on these issues we should be able to vote and decide on when to take military action. We should exercise our own judgments, on the basis of our own views and consciences, because no more significant decision can be made than to send someone to where they could lose their life. That is why we should vote on these occasions. I think we will have to have a vote at some stage in the coming period, because I fear that this situation will go on and on.

Unrelated to that issue, I wish to make a plea. The International Court of Justice’s interim decision will be coming out soon, perhaps today, as some have said, or on Friday, and when it does come out it is important that we have a debate in this House. That would enable the Government to tell us what they will do in the light of that decision. The interim decision will almost certainly attach some conditions to the activities of Israel in particular, and it is important that we debate that in this House. It is also important that we have a decision-making process—a vote—on how we as a country can ensure that such a decision and its conditions are abided by and implemented.

My second brief point is that, time and again, the Prime Minister and others have said that there is no link between the Houthis’ actions and what is happening in Gaza. That argument is unsustainable. I agree with everything that has been said, by Members from across the House, about the Houthis—I condemn them outright. The basis of their beliefs, as far as I can see, has to be condemned. Their actions in Yemen and what they are doing at the moment have to be condemned. What they are doing is horrific, it is putting lives at risk and they are undermining their own people, but to say that it is completely unrelated to Gaza is unsustainable.

People have said, “Well, maybe it is ‘connected’ to Gaza,” As my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter said, what is happening in Gaza is mobilising the Arab street across the middle east, and understandably so. People are watching the reportage of the human suffering and reacting aghast at what they are seeing on the ground in Gaza. As a result, they are putting pressure on their own regimes, right the way across, for some form of action. It is because both the US and the UK have not taken effective action that desire for action gets distorted in other forms—it is the Houthis’ excuse for their actions.

That leads us to the fact that we here have to accept our responsibility. Ian Blackford talked about the House being shamed by the number of deaths—the 25,000 deaths that have taken place. We are shamed by witnessing on our television screens the operations and the amputations of children’s limbs without anaesthetics. We should be shamed, but we should be more shamed by our refusal to act soon enough. I think we were complicit with Biden in basically saying to the Israelis, “You have more time to sort this out with military action, rather than looking at a real strategic plan for the future.” We have a responsibility because of our history over the past century and a half in the region, so we should come forward with our own proposals soon. Some have been mentioned already and I do think that the recognition of Palestine is important, because that sends a message to Israel and elsewhere—

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I am going to try to keep within the time if I can.

Recognition of Palestine will send a message to Israel that it has to come to terms with that reality at some stage. I know people have said that we have to get rid of Hamas, but, as soon as we can secure peace, Palestinians should be given the opportunity to vote for their leadership and be allowed to exercise democracy. I think people will be surprised at how the Palestinians will vote; I think they will vote for peace and for those who advocate peace. That might give us the opportunity to consolidate the Palestinian people, who have been so divided by Israel between the west bank and Gaza. We need to think creatively, for example like that, before we blunder even further. I hope the Government will now come forward with a more constructive plan, and let us vote on it.

Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset 6:05, 24 January 2024

I will keep to time, Madam Deputy Speaker, as two hon. Friends will give me a seven-minute bell.

I strongly support the Government’s move and the strikes they are taking in the Red sea. In The Sunday Times at the weekend, there was a rather amusing cartoon of Lord Nelson, with the telescope placed to his bad eye and the words “I see no ships” emblazoned across the top of the page. Hon. Members can guess that the article was about the lamentable size of our Royal Navy.

Over a week ago, the Defence Secretary, to his great credit, kindly asked me to attend a major speech he was making at Lancaster House. He warned that we were in a “pre-war” period, with the west facing very real and growing threats from around the world, as we have heard in the House tonight. The head of our Army is warning about calling up the public in the event of war—that is probably the likes of me, because there ain’t anybody else. NATO Admiral Rob Bauer went even further, saying we should prepare for “all-out war” with Russia, and Germany is predicting Putin could attack NATO in as little as five years. With all that in mind, why does the Royal Navy have only 18 frigates and destroyers, with only a small number able to deploy at any one time?

Having had the pleasure and honour to sit on our Defence Committee for four years, I could provide a number of answers to that question, but I fear many in the House are aware of them already and I do not want to labour the point. To be fair to the Government, some 13 new warships are planned and £31 billion is being spent on upgrading our nuclear submarine fleet, but we will not see those for some years to come. The threat is now and, as I have said, very real.

HMS Diamond, the latest Type 45 destroyer, and her crew are doing a courageous and professional job in the Red sea. They are an example of our armed forces at their very best, defending a vital international route that much of our trade goes through. Our thoughts and prayers are with them all.

Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset

I will keep going, if I may, because we are getting to the end of the debate and others want to speak.

The enemy are a rag-bag bunch of rebels using cheap drones, which the ship counters with £1 million Sea Viper missiles and, on occasion, 30 mm cannon. The operation is exactly why we have a Royal Navy. Meanwhile, the RAF is flying operations from Cyprus, a round trip of 3,200 miles. I ask the Minister: why? We have two state-of-the-art aircraft carriers lying in Portsmouth, equipped with the latest F-35 stealth fighters. It is true that we have only a few of those aeroplanes at the moment, but will the Minister explain why neither they nor the aircraft carriers are being used?

The current very effective threat to a vital international trade route is sobering. These are Houthi rebels, not some sophisticated peer adversary. What if they were? I accept that in that scenario we would be part of a NATO force, with the US doing much of the heavy lifting, but this relatively minor excursion in the Red sea is yet another wake-up call.

For 13 years in this place, I and many others have called for more money for defence. For 13 years, various Prime Ministers have reassured us that our armed forces are in good order and ready to fight. I have no doubt at all that our brave men and women are ready for just that, but do we have the resilience, numbers, reserves, ships, planes and armoured vehicles to fight a sustained conflict?

Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset

I will, if I may, just keep going. Forgive me, but I do not want to go over my time.

This debate is about the situation in the Red sea. That puts the spotlight on the Royal Navy, which is so short of sailors that some ships are having to be retired early. As both my grandfather and father took great pride in reminding me, the Royal Navy is the senior service, and there is a good reason for that. There is no doubt that a very large fleet during the second world war played a significant part in saving this country from invasion and in keeping our vital trade routes open, not least to the US.

The much-reduced Royal Navy again played a vital role in re-taking the Falklands in 1982. Unfortunately, the peace dividend has continued to take its toll and the Royal Navy is critically short of ships and sailors—to the point that we are endangering the security of our country.

Expenditure is a matter of priorities, and this is where the Government have to state priorities. Can we please have no more arbitrary targets on defence? I am tired of hearing 2%, 2.2% or even 2.5%. Can we ask the military what it needs to play a prominent role in NATO and to defend our country and its dependants? Once we have that worked out, we can then see what we can afford. If we cannot afford it, I suggest that we reignite the economy, get growth going, raise the tax revenue by lowering taxes, and put more money into our armed forces.

In conclusion—I am within time—let us adhere to the warnings of a growing number of eminent people and prevent the situation in which we found ourselves in 1939.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 6:11, 24 January 2024

Undoubtedly, it is our duty to protect freedom of navigation not only for our own self-interest, but to defend a core tenet of international law. The question is how we go about it. First, we must recognise the limitations of our short-term interventions and remain focused on a long-term peaceful solution to the civil war in Yemen. That remains the best route to stability in the region. Secondly, we must build durable and lasting coalitions to maintain freedom of navigation in the Red sea and beyond.

The Houthis have been engaged in a decades-long civil war. Even in the face of extensive aerial bombardment by the Saudis and the Emiratis, the Houthis continued to make territorial gains, import more and more sophisticated weapons, and fire rockets at Saudi and Emirati cities, all this while thousands of Yemenis starved to death or were killed in the crossfire. Despite all their firepower, boots on the ground, understanding of the region, support from the UK and US, and ample political will, the Saudis and Emiratis have failed to weaken the Houthi movement. We should therefore be realistic that our actions will almost certainly not be a limited containment or restore a deterrent. All the signs point to escalation; it would be foolish to ignore them. Therefore, peace offers the clearest durable long-term solution to the Houthi attacks in the Red sea.

In recent years, considerable progress had been made in negotiating a lasting ceasefire in the country. There was true momentum to talks, which had reduced violence, ended almost all strikes in Yemen and in the Arabian peninsula and forced the Houthis to moderate their behaviour. A negotiated peace to the Yemeni civil war remains our best hope for forcing the Houthis to abide by international law, let alone end the untold suffering in Yemen. But the brutal events of 7 October have derailed peace efforts. It is clear that only our strategic rivals have anything to gain from escalating conflict in the Red sea. Iran in particular has much to gain from crippling the peace process and demonstrating the havoc that it and its proxies can unleash on international shipping. Peace in Yemen pulls the rug from under those who use instability and conflict to increase their own power.

We must recognise that targeted strikes are highly unlikely to stop the Houthis in the long term and, instead, redouble our efforts to kickstart peace negotiations. On that basis, our Government should engage more closely with partners in the UN, the EU and our long-standing allies in the region.

I reiterate the importance of the UK upholding international law. However, the current American-led coalition is far too limited and looks too vulnerable to short-term political change. If the UK is to remain a true defender of freedom of navigation, we must start building broader alliances. The USA is becoming increasingly isolationist and is tiring of its role as the world’s policeman—a trend that goes back to Obama and is embodied by the “America first” doctrine of the current frontrunner in the US election. While America remains one of our most closely aligned partners, we must foster other coalitions if we are to guarantee the long-term upholding of international law. There needs to be much greater involvement by regional powers in policing international laws in the Red sea. So far, only Bahrain has joined the coalition.

A coalition with greater regional and Arab involvement would undercut the Houthis’ claim that they are supporting the fight of the Palestinians against America and the west. Greater engagement from big Arab states in defending international law would have the added benefit of not only making interventions more effective, but creating broader international norms that attacking non-military shipping cannot be a legitimate act of war. The UK should utilise its considerable influence in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo to push those countries into joining these efforts. Additionally, we must engage with our European partners, who have a like-minded and long-term interest in guaranteeing the free flow of global trade.

Lastly, I urge the Government to consider the successful global fight against Somali piracy as a model for what a longer-term project to protect shipping in the region could look like. The situation in the Red sea is unlikely to be solved in the short term by a few missiles. The Government must therefore consider long-term solutions to ensure enduring stability in the region.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Alba, East Lothian 6:16, 24 January 2024

I rise to take what is obviously a minority view in the Chamber, given the views of Members from all parties, other than a few individuals. It is not, however, an insignificant view within the wider country. There are those who oppose an escalation in an area that is already a tinderbox, worry about a rush to war, and seek instead a push for peace. Of course we condemn the actions of the Houthis —that has been done, as people have said, by the UN Security Council—as we rightly condemn Hamas. As I will go on to say, the issues are inextricably linked. This is, however, an escalation. We have not been bombing Somalia with regard to piracy, or Eritrea. Although it is a while since President Obama launched cruise missiles on al-Shabaab, it seems to be the Houthis who are being picked on at the moment, albeit they are breaching international law and have to be held to some account.

It is an escalation against a country that is already one of the poorest in the world, and this will inflict further harm. This country has endured 10 years of bombing from Saudi Arabia, which has been armed with the finest munitions that the US and UK could provide it with—and that has not managed to destroy the Houthis. Somehow, despite Saudi Arabia being provided with all that equipment, to the great benefit of many private corporations, the Houthis have continued to be able to cause harm and destruction. That will obviously continue—we have already had one set of strikes, and we are now on to a second. How many more sets of strikes will there be before there is either an escalation or a call to halt them?

I think the Minister himself stated that surface-to-air missiles had been taken out. I do not claim to have any military expertise, but surface-to-air missiles do not seem to me to have any logical relation to the Houthis attacking shipping; they appear to be more related to the USA defending its vested interests. This is a lurch towards wider war.

We have heard comments from Members across the House—shamefully, I would say—about Iran, and conflict with Russia and China. My grandfather fought in world war one. My father fought in world war two. Both fought to try to ensure that their children would never have to fight in another conflict. I do not wish to see my children or grandchildren end up in world war three, yet there seems to be an almost “Dr. Strangelove” tendency among some who are pulling us in that direction.

Even if we do not go down that precipitous route, with all the disaster that would envelop it, we also face a legacy of hatred, which we have seen from Afghanistan and especially from Iraq. We should not think that people will view this as neutral. People—not simply the Houthis, but people in the Arab world, the Muslim world and in our own country—will see this as one-sided, judgmental and picking upon one side, yet failing to do anything about the fundamental issue of what is happening in Gaza. We run the risk of worsening terrorism, both abroad and, indeed, home-grown.

That takes us to the question of why the Houthis are doing this. It is risible to say that it is not connected to Gaza—of course it is. The timeline speaks to that. Trade was going, although not without difficulties, prior to 7 October. The timeline dictates that that was the cause of it. Indeed, the Houthis have told us, in their almost webcam invasion of landing on the tanker, because they even flew the Palestinian flag. It was reminiscent of when Britain took a helicopter and landed somebody so that we could have a flag on Rockall. The Houthis made it clear that what they were doing related to what was happening in Gaza. That is why in order to get peace, as I said after the Prime Minister’s statement earlier this week, we are required to look in conflict resolution not simply at the manifestations, but the fundamental root, and at the root is what is happening in Gaza.

We have heard today that the purpose of the airstrikes is to preserve international law. International law also covers stopping genocide. We have heard from other speakers eloquently pointing out that 25,000 Palestinians have died in Gaza—1.1% of the population, and 70% of them women and children. What would that be in UK terms? That would be almost three quarters of a million UK citizens wiped out since 7 October. Do we think that would go unnoticed? Yet what has happened? We have said, “Netanyahu is maybe going a bit far,” and, “Maybe Israel has to call it all back.” We should be supporting South Africa and other countries in pushing this at the International Court of Justice. I believe and expect that on Friday the International Court of Justice, as people have suggested, will rule against Israel, because what Israel is doing is fundamentally wrong, and we need to call that out.

If we want to ensure that we get maritime trade going, which we do, and ensure that we protect seafarers—not so much UK seafarers, because there was no rush to protect the P&O workers when they were gruesomely treated, and most of those sailing on the ships, of which only one had a UK flag, were not UK seafarers—we have to solve the problem in Gaza. That is where the solution lies, and that is why we must not rush towards escalation; we must have a push towards peace. In terms of enforcing international law, it is not enough to enforce international maritime law and the freedom of movement. What about protecting the rights of women and children—even children who are having amputations carried out without anaesthetic? We cannot pick and choose on international law, and it is about time that the UK stood up for the rights of the Palestinian people.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence) 6:23, 24 January 2024

I am grateful to the Government for granting the debate, and to the Defence Secretary for setting out at the beginning of the debate the reasons for British military action in the Red sea region. He is right that this action was indeed limited, necessary and proportionate; in self-defence; using minimal necessary force; and for the freedom of navigation. I agree with all that, and it is good that it was set out in that way. Where I take issue with the Defence Secretary is that there is no vote associated with the debate. I know that a couple other right hon. and hon. Members have talked about the business of whether there should be prerogative powers or parliamentary approval for military action, and that is what I want to make the focus of my contribution.

I think it was James Gray who talked about how only twice in 200 years has Parliament had a say before military action took place. I am not advocating for military action to take place following a vote. I recognise that there are plenty of occasions when parliamentary approval needs to happen retrospectively, after the event. Those scenarios include reasons of operational security and the deployment of special forces, which are definitely within the domain of the Executive and not necessarily the business of the legislature, and our international treaty obligations, as he said.

We can think of many scenarios and emergencies where there needs to be a decision by the Executive and the Government need to say what is going to happen, without consultation in advance. In those scenarios, however, there is no reason why we cannot then come back to the House and have a retrospective vote on that action. If that were happening today, I would very happily vote in support of the military action that has now taken place twice in the Red sea.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

There are two problems with retrospective votes. The first is that the action would already have happened, so if the House has voted against it, what would we do about it? The second is that they emasculate this House, because if we voted for military action, how could we then criticise it? Only if we do not vote for it can we do what we are doing today and scrutinise what the Government are doing.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions. I intend to set out in my contributions the answers to both, so I hope he will listen out for them. He is very welcome to intervene at the end if he does not feel that I have answered them sufficiently.

If the Government are confident in their case, what is there to fear? Why can we not have a vote on military action if the Government are confident in their case and make that case in front of Parliament?

My particular concern is that this action sets a precedent for the future. We have gone over many times in this debate why it is the bread and butter of the Royal Navy. Freedom of navigation is something we can be very proud that the Royal Navy has secured for us for hundreds of years, but this could set a precedent for future military action where there is no prior vote or indeed retrospective vote.

I think that can be explained in part by the Foreign Secretary’s experience, which others have talked about, of seeking parliamentary support for military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria but failing to get it. I think the opposition of some MPs in 2013 was reflective of the concerns of their constituents, who at the time felt a reticence due to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We could see the 2013 vote as an overreaction or perhaps over-reticence.

Under this Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, we now risk overreacting in the other direction, by looking back at that 2013 vote and deciding that we are not going to have retrospective approval at all. Surely the lesson from the 2013 vote is that Governments must do better at explaining the necessity of military action, not only to MPs, many of whom are not experts in this area and would rather defer to people with more expertise, but, crucially, to their constituents. We need to convince the British public that military action is necessary. That is particularly the case after the debacle of 2003 and Britain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq.

I appreciate that there are situations, which the hon. Member for North Wiltshire spoke about, in which we do not have sight of secret intelligence and therefore the Executive need to make a decision without consultation. I appreciate that, but I think there is still a scepticism amongst the British public about the notion of secret intelligence and saying, “You can’t know; you need to trust us.” Again, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 has created a very cynical public on that subject.

The counter-insurgencies of the early part of this century have damaged trust. To restore that trust, we need this House to be able to vote retrospectively on military action.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

I will give way at the end, if I may.

What sets the UK and our western allies apart is that we practice democratic control of our armed forces. This is all about setting us apart from our adversaries, but we also need to demonstrate to our own service personnel not just that they can be assured of the support of their Prime Minister and their Executive, but that they have the British public behind them. It is not just about support for the troops—we all support the troops—but about support for the cause, which is so important too.

We need to guard against a future scenario—one that Members might be able to imagine—in which the Prime Minister is threatened by dissent on his own Back Benches. Imagine a future Prime Minister who seeks to distract from domestic challenges by exercising military force abroad. We might call it “domestic distraction”. I have no confidence that every Prime Minister will operate with the foresight to anticipate what escalation British military action might trigger.

As Clausewitz said, war is a dialectic. In 21st century terms, the enemy gets a vote. This is not just about the Houthi militia; it is about the Iranian sponsors of the Houthis, Hamas and Hezbollah, and about Iran’s partner and customer, Russia. We must be cognisant of all that context when we take military action. For that reason, we must return to the House and get parliamentary scrutiny and approval.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

Let us imagine that the strikes have happened—as they did last week and earlier this week—and that the House had a vote on the matter today and voted against them. What would then happen?

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

The point of a retrospective vote is that it gives guidance to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary on what action the British people think should be taken in future. That is very relevant in this case because, as we have already heard, these two occasions of military strikes are not likely to be isolated, and we are likely to see future British military action in the Red sea.

When we talk about future British military action, the Defence Secretary needs to think carefully about speaking softly and carrying a big stick. At this stage, as we have heard from Conservative Members, he risks having armed forces that are too small, and misplacing the stick and shouting.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Before I call the shadow Minister, I am concerned that not everybody who has contributed to the debate is here for the wind-ups. It is important that contributors do the House the courtesy of returning to hear the responses, because that is what they are: responses to the debate and the contributions that right hon. and hon. Members have made. I hope that that will be fed back, yet again. I call the shadow Minister.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa) 6:32, 24 January 2024

We have had an excellent debate. It is true that it has been wide-ranging on occasions, but it has also been thoughtful, frank and, at times, passionate. I certainly hope that the Defence Secretary will take the trouble to read Hansard tomorrow to at least be aware of the excellent contributions that have been made.

It has been interesting to listen to the contributions about whether Parliament should have a say on military action beforehand or retrospectively, and I am sure that we will return to that debate in earnest. I give a commitment to read what I am sure is an excellent book by James Gray.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa)

I will make no comment about that.

This debate is seriously important because, as I think we all agree, there has to be Government accountability for the action that they take. I am therefore genuinely pleased that the debate has taken place, and hope that further such debates take place in future.

Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset

On the point about voting, which I think is ridiculous, during the bad period of the second world war when Churchill was very unpopular, if a vote had been taken in the House, I suspect that, on some occasions, he might have lost. What on earth would we have done then?

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa)

I am sure that Members have noted the hon. Gentleman’s comment, and am sure that when we have a detailed debate on that issue, his comment will weigh heavily on people’s minds.

This debate is important because accountability is vital. As we have made clear on a number of occasions, the Labour party supports this limited, targeted action. We do so because it is important to protect international commerce and to ensure security for maritime shipping in the Red sea. We uphold international law, and believe it would be quite wrong to ignore the disruption to the flow of goods, foods, medicines and much else, as well as the threat to human life, that is being caused by the Houthis’ actions.

I agree with the comments of the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Alicia Kearns—with which many other Members also agreed, including my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter—that the Houthis are a truly appalling terrorist organisation, and are most definitely no freedom fighters. It is also worth noting that the Houthis’ actions are harming Yemen itself, the country that has experienced the worst starvation in modern times. As Mrs Drummond mentioned, 90% of Yemen’s food is imported, and those imports are clearly at risk.

Let us not forget, too, that the Houthis’ actions have terrible consequences for other countries along the Red sea. Eritrea relies on fishing, farming and mineral exports, all of which travel by sea. For Sudan, the Red sea is vital for aid, which has come to a virtual end since the Houthis’ attacks began. Further up the Red sea we have Egypt, a country experiencing severe economic difficulties. It stands to lose millions of dollars in revenue from the Suez canal—money that is desperately needed—if the Houthis’ actions are allowed to continue.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Conservative, North Somerset

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. For the sake of completeness, would he also like to add that the Houthis have fired missiles into Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of which are sovereign states?

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa)

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, which reinforces the essential point that action is not only justified and lawful, but necessary to prevent that kind of violence and aggression by this rag-tag of terrorists called the Houthis.

It is significant that the actions of the United States and the United Kingdom have logistical support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands, because the international community must be and act as one. It is worth stating that on Monday evening those four countries put out a joint statement, along with the UK and the US, which said:

“Recognising the broad consensus of the international community, we again acted as part of a coalition of like-minded countries committed to upholding the rules-based order, protecting freedom of navigation and international commerce, and holding the Houthis accountable for their illegal and unjustifiable attacks on mariners and commercial shipping.”

It is also important to acknowledge that the UN Security Council agreed a resolution that unequivocally condemned the Houthis’ attacks. I am glad that my hon. Friend Jeff Smith specifically referred to that resolution.

With Britain taking this targeted military action, it is important that the House recognises the professionalism and bravery of our armed forces—I am sure we are all united on that. I am referring, of course, to those who are serving on HMS Diamond and those flying RAF Typhoons. Of course, we recognise that military strikes can reduce and perhaps eliminate the immediate threat to free navigation but, as a number of Members have indicated, there needs to be a wider political strategy. The Defence Secretary touched on that subject at the start of the debate, but will the Minister indicate more precisely and in greater detail what the strategy is?

We all know only too well the horrific suffering that the people of Yemen have experienced over the past few years, with the terrible civil war and the appalling humanitarian crisis that unfolded as a result. The UK has a historical responsibility in the area, and we also are the UN penholder for Yemen, so I would appreciate it if the Minister elaborated on the Prime Minister’s comments to the House yesterday about what further assistance can be given to the people of Yemen to help to alleviate their suffering.

A number of Members referred to the terrible situation in Gaza. The situation is truly terrible. I do not accept, however, the Houthi claims that attacking ships from around the world is somehow linked to the conflict in Gaza. There is a desperate need for a humanitarian truce leading to a sustainable ceasefire in Gaza. Indeed, we must move as quickly as we possibly can to a two-state solution. That is in everyone’s interests, as Layla Moran said very clearly.

It has to be said that the actions by the Houthis in the Red sea are an attack on the international community and the rule of law, and they should be seen for what they are. Let me be clear: Labour supports proportionate airstrikes, but I would welcome clarification from the Minister on the points that I have raised.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa) 6:41, 24 January 2024

This has been a thoughtful debate and, I think, a united one, and I will endeavour to respond to as many of the points made as I can in the time I have.

As my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary made clear at the start of the debate, the Houthis’ illegal attacks on commercial shipping and British and American warships in the Red sea are completely unacceptable. Despite repeated warnings from the international community, they have carried out more than 30 attacks since 19 November. As I think all hon. and right hon. Members across the House have said, this is unacceptable, illegal and dangerous, and it cannot stand. That is why, amid the ongoing and imminent threat to British commercial and military vessels and those of our partners in the Red sea, the Prime Minister ordered the Royal Air Force to carry out targeted strikes against military facilities used by the Houthis, first on 11 January and then again on Monday. We acted alongside our US allies and with support from the Netherlands, Canada, Australia and Bahrain. The strikes were limited, necessary, proportionate and legal. We acted in self-defence, consistent with the UN charter and in line with international law to uphold the freedom of navigation.

On the specific issues raised in the debate, let me try to respond to the speeches we heard, starting with that by the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, John Healey. He mentioned his agreement with and support for what the Government are seeking to do, and we are most grateful for that. He also called for a wider defence debate, and I completely take his point. However, he will also accept that, under the changes that took place, the Government basically gave that time to the Backbench Business Committee, so the Backbench Business Committee itself is the most likely target, in addition to the Government, to provide that extra time.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

Does my right hon. Friend not accept that His Majesty’s Government have an absolute duty to provide debates in this House in Government time to discuss defence? Just to say that the Backbench Business Committee may or may not provide it if someone applies for a debate is not enough. We want proper debates here in Government time.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa)

No, no—I completely accept what my hon. Friend is saying. I am just pointing out that the reform made in relation to the Backbench Business Committee has eaten into that time.

I very much thank the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne for his support for the Government’s strategy on Ukraine. It is a great strength, I think, that there is full and total unity across the House on that matter. He asked me about the two landing platform docks Albion and Bulwark, and asked for an undertaking that they will not be scrapped. I am able, on behalf of the Government, to give him the undertaking that neither of them will be scrapped. I know that will come as a relief to the great friend of many of us, particularly on this side of the House: Lord Llewellyn, His Majesty’s ambassador to Italy, who is the honorary ship’s captain of HMS Albion.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

My right hon. Friend was covering the point about the United Kingdom Government’s strategy to degrade the Houthis. Looking at all the levers that we have militarily, economically and diplomatically, our key ally the United States has taken a specific decision that the United Kingdom has not taken yet. The United States has proscribed the Houthis as a terrorist organisation, with that coming into effect in 30 days’ time. Why have the United Kingdom Government not done that?

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa)

My hon. Friend will understand that we would not give a running commentary to the House on the issue of sanctioning proscriptions ahead of making any such announcement, so I cannot give him an answer to that.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa)

I will give way in a moment; I just want to finish dealing with the comments by the shadow Secretary of State. He also asked whether HMS Diamond will be replaced on the station. The answer is yes, she will be replaced by HMS Richmond, but he will accept, I hope, that I cannot give any operational details about that.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of Israel and Gaza, which is adjacent to this debate if not directly part of it. That issue was similarly raised by the hon. Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), whose son we thank for his service, by my right hon. Friend Sir Liam Fox, and by the hon. Members for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill), and for Caerphilly (Wayne David). Colleagues throughout the debate have raised this point, and I reiterate that there is no link between our action of self-defence in the Red sea, and the situation in Israel and Gaza. The Houthis are using events in Israel and Gaza as an excuse to destabilise the region further. They are trying to paint themselves as protectors of the oppressed, but their own track record of oppression shows them in a very different light.

Britain wants to see an end to the fighting in Gaza as soon as possible. We are calling for an immediate humanitarian pause to get aid in and hostages out, and as a vital step towards building a sustainable, permanent ceasefire, without a return to destruction, fighting, and loss of life. To achieve that, we need Hamas to agree to release all the hostages. Hamas can no longer be in charge of Gaza, and an agreement must be in place for the Palestinian Authority to return to Gaza.

While I am on that point, may I say to the hon. Member for East Lothian a word or two about the reference to the International Court of Justice? The Government believe that the referral by South Africa to the International Court of Justice is unhelpful, but of course we respect the role and independence of the ICJ. I say to the House, particularly on Holocaust Memorial Day, that the suggestion that Israel is engaged in genocide against the Palestinian people is both wrong and profoundly offensive. I make it clear on Holocaust Memorial Day that we also remember the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, in Bosnia in 1995 and in Sudan in 2003, as well as in Cambodia in the 1970s. If I may update the House, the ICJ has announced during the course of the debate that it will deliver its decision on South Africa’s request for provisional measures at 12 o’clock UK time on Friday 26 January.

Let me return to the excellent speeches made by so many of my right hon. and hon. Friends and Members, and I will turn first to the speech by the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

My right hon. Friend is, as always, the model of courtesy. For the avoidance of any lingering doubt—I am sure this can be avoided as I am getting very positive signals from the Defence Secretary sitting to his left—will he confirm that HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, whose planned out-of-service dates are 2033 and 2034 respectively, not only will not be scrapped ahead of time, but will not be mothballed either?

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

As a former serviceman, I have a simple view that quantity has a quality all of its own. Can the Minister please assure the House whether the FCDO has asked the MOD for additional platforms to be sent to the region with a view to offering deterrence against aggressors and ensuring the safe passage of British shipping?

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa)

My hon. Friend will have heard the Prime Minister’s words explaining what the strategy is and how we are implementing it, and I can tell him that the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence are perfectly joined in every sense in pursuing that strategy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton, who in these matters is something of a poacher turned gatekeeper—perhaps it is a gamekeeper turned poacher, because she was previously a distinguished member of the diplomatic corps—delivered trenchant support for our actions. She spoke up for Arab-led initiatives in the region, and I thank her very much also for agreeing to organise a workshop on Iran in the House of Commons for half a day.

Martin Docherty-Hughes asked who we are listening to. The answer is that we are listening to the House, and he will have heard today a House united. He set out the challenges facing the defence budget, and many in the House will understand and agree with him that the challenges are significant, but we are tackling those challenges.

My right hon. Friend Sir Alec Shelbrooke spoke warmly and rightly about the Royal Navy. We thank him for his support, and he gave the House a geopolitical discourse, in particular on the challenges to the global food chain, and the whole House will have heard what he said.

My hon. Friend James Gray reminded us of the excellence of his book, and we authors must stick together. He also explained, as the Prime Minister did, why Parliament was not consulted in these circumstances. That point was also visited by two Opposition Members, and I will come to that in a moment.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

There has been concern about the change of registration for vessels going through the Red sea, notably those changing to the People’s Republic of China. If the Minister cannot give me an answer today, will he write to the Defence Committee or its Chair, Sir Jeremy Quin, on how many merchant fleet vessels are changing their registration from their country of origin to the People’s Republic of China, and whether Chinese-registered vessels have been targeted?

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa)

The hon. Gentleman asks me a detailed question, and the Secretaries of State for Transport and for Defence will have heard what he said. I am sure they will be happy to write to him.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset spoke about the danger and the nature of the Iranian regime, and he eloquently set out the threat to international maritime law. As I have said, I cannot give a commentary on IRGC proscription, but I can tell him that we have heard his views and those of other right hon. and hon. Members.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Conservative, North Somerset

My right hon. Friend will recall that I have asked on several occasions why Iran Air is still flying from Heathrow and why Iranian banks are still trading in the City of London. Those are separate issues, but none the less important alongside the proscription issue.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa)

I will ensure that my right hon. Friend has a detailed answer on where we stand on both those issues.

The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon spoke movingly and compellingly on the importance, as I think the whole House agrees, of a two-state solution being in the interests not just of Israelis and Palestinians, but of the wider region and all of us here in the UK.

My hon. Friend Mrs Drummond gave powerful warnings about the dangers of starvation in Yemen; that point was echoed by the hon. Member for Caerphilly. Ian Blackford supported working more closely with the region and mentioned the importance of tackling wider examples of instability. The whole House will have been grateful for his remarks, and in particular for the wise words he spoke about Ukraine.

My hon. Friend Bob Seely talked about the impact and the effect of Iran’s proxies. He spoke with both experience and knowledge about the risks of warfare and the need for a greater sense of strategy, looking in particular at the work of the National Security Council. Some of us were involved with that when it was set up. I took a careful note of what he said.

John McDonnell mentioned that he thought he was joining a debate with defence nerds. I want to assure him of a warm welcome to our number. He, along with Richard Foord, spoke about the importance of having a vote. The Government have made it clear that it is neither practical nor sensible to publicise such an action in advance as that could both undermine the effectiveness of the action and potentially risk the lives of armed forces personnel involved. My view is that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire had the better of their interesting inner debate.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

What about the situation of retrospective approval?

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa)

I think that was the point he raised, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire answered with great eloquence.

My hon. Friend Richard Drax spoke using his detailed military knowledge to the advantage of the House, with considerable historical analogy. Wera Hobhouse warned the House about the importance of defending international maritime law.

Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset

I did ask why the aircraft carriers are not being used in the Red sea, and I would be grateful if some answer could be given.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa)

The use of the aircraft carriers, one of which is heading to a NATO exercise anyway, will be kept under review. If the assets that they would bring to bear on our central aims in this matter are appropriate, of course the right decision will be taken.

I think I have already answered the point made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Wilshire engaged with specifically. I therefore think that I have covered every speech made, so I will draw my remarks to a close.

We have sent the clearest possible message that we will continue to reduce the Houthis’ ability to carry out these attacks, and we will back our warning with actions. The Houthis should be under no misunderstanding: Britain and our allies are committed to holding them to account. Yesterday’s statement from 24 countries condemned and demanded an end to the Red sea attacks.

Military strikes are just one part of our wider response. First, we are increasing our diplomatic engagement. The Prime Minister spoke to President Biden about these issues on Monday night. The Foreign Secretary, who even now is in the region and will be visiting a number of different countries, has a meeting today with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and he met his Iranian counterpart last week. He made it clear that Iran must cease supplying the Houthis and use its influence to stop Houthi attacks.

Secondly, we must end the illegal flow of arms to the Houthis. We have intercepted weapons shipments in the region before, including components of the very missiles used by the Houthis today. Those who supply such weapons to the Houthis to conduct these attacks are violating UN Security Council resolution 2216 and international law. Thirdly, we will use the most effective means at our disposal to cut off the Houthis’ financial resources where they are used to fund these attacks.

Finally, we need to keep helping the people of Yemen, who have suffered so grievously as a result of the country’s civil war. The Houthis’ actions make that suffering worse. We will continue to deliver humanitarian aid and to support a negotiated peace in that conflict—that is the position—and Ministers are absolutely committed to keeping the House fully informed, as the House sees fit.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the situation in the Red Sea.