Situation in the Red Sea

– in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 5 February 2024.

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Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence 3:30, 5 February 2024

With permission, I will make a statement on the recent response to Houthi aggression in the Red sea.

Freedom of navigation has been a cornerstone of civilisation since time immemorial. It underpins our prosperity and security, and is a founding principle of the international rules-based system. Since 19 October, the Houthis, supplied and aided by Iran, have been infringing on those fundamental freedoms by attacking international commercial vessels in the Red sea and in the Gulf of Aden. On 19 November, they illegally seized the merchant vessel Galaxy Leader using a helicopter-borne assault crew, and since then they have conducted around 40 attacks against commercial and military vessels. Despite repeated warnings, their attacks have continued.

The UK has always stood up for the rules-based international order, and since the Houthis began their illegal attacks we have been at the forefront of the international response, whether helping to defend vessels in the vicinity, as one of the first members to join the US-led taskforce Operation Prosperity Guardian, or working in tandem with the US and other allies to tackle the Houthis, always in response to specific threats and always in line with international law and the principle of self-defence.

On two previous occasions we have been required to use force, and those attacks have had a significant effect in degrading Houthi capabilities, but the Houthis’ intent to continue disrupting the Red sea has not been fully diminished. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister came to the House to make it clear, as I did the following day, that unless the Houthis desisted from their inflammatory actions, we would not hesitate to act again. Yet instead of ceasing their activities, they have chosen to persist, accompanying their increasingly incendiary rhetoric with further missiles and drones targeted at shipping and at the Royal Navy.

Most recently, the Houthis set the vessel Marlin Luanda on fire and targeted HMS Diamond directly in the Red sea. Such behaviour is simply intolerable. It breaks international law, and is already having consequences that are damaging to the economies of the world. Insurance premiums have rocketed tenfold since the start of December, the number of cargo ships transiting Bab al-Mandab has fallen, and the cost of containers has rocketed, all of which could send food inflation spiralling, and will certainly hit those countries with the greatest poverty levels the hardest.

The Houthis believe that they are the region’s Robin Hood, but as I discussed with the Yemeni Defence Minister just yesterday when I saw him in Saudi, the only people they are robbing are innocent Yeminis whose food and aid arrives via the Red sea. That is why at the weekend the Prime Minister and I again authorised the use of force, in strict accordance with international law and in self-defence. On Saturday, Royal Air Force Typhoons, supported by two Voyager tankers, joined the US forces to conduct further precision strikes against Houthi locations in Yemen. The Typhoons employed Paveway IV precision-guided munitions against three military facilities, hitting 11 separate targets, which were identified after careful intelligence analysis at those three locations and approved by me.

At As-Salif, due west of Sana’a on the Red sea coast, our aircraft targeted a ground control station inside a defensive position. The station has been used to control Houthi attack and reconnaissance drones launched from further inland and operating over the Red sea, targeted at international shipping. A second drone ground control station was confirmed to be Al-Munirah on the same stretch of coastline. As with As-Salif, the station provided direct control of reconnaissance and attack drones targeting shipping in the Red sea, its position on the coast allowing it to maintain the line of sight data links used to target innocent shipping with accuracy.

Our Typhoons also attacked a significant number of targets at Bani. The House may recall that an initial group of facilities at Bani were successfully struck by the RAF on the night of 11 January this year. Since then, a further set of buildings at the site had been positively confirmed to be involved in the Houthi operations and were, as a result, targeted on this occasion. As is standard practice for operations by the RAF, the strikes were very carefully planned to ensure minimal risk of civilian casualties. Dropping munitions at night further reduces such risks and we do not believe there were any civilian casualties on Saturday night.

Military action can only be one element in our efforts to confront these global challenges, and military action is indeed the very last resort. It would be far better if the Houthis stopped their attacks. Our approach is therefore founded on four pillars. First, we are increasing diplomatic engagement. The Foreign Secretary travelled to the region and met his Iranian counterpart last month to make it clear that Iran must cease supplying the Houthis with weapons and intelligence and use its influence to stop the Houthi attacks. The Prime Minister spoke to President Biden recently to discuss our joint approach and I met my counterparts in the region this weekend, returning this morning from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where I discussed regional security.

Secondly, we must end the illegal flow of arms to the Houthis. Britain and the US have previously intercepted weapons shipments in the region, including the same kind of components that we have seen used in recent strikes. Thirdly, we must cut off the Houthis’ financial resources. We have already—we did so last month—sanctioned four key figures within the Houthi regime, including the commander of the Houthi naval forces and the Houthi Defence Minister.

Fourthly, we continue to help the people of Yemen, delivering humanitarian aid and supporting a negotiated peace. The UK has committed £88 million in humanitarian support so far this year, feeding 100,000 Yemenis every month with aid arriving through the very sea routes which, ironically, the Houthis are targeting.

Let me be absolutely clear: we would much rather the Houthis simply stopped attacking international shipping, stopped damaging global trade and stopped harming the prospects of their own people. At the same time, appeasing the Houthis today will not lead to a more stable Red sea or indeed a more stable region. We are not seeking confrontation and we urge the Houthis, and all those who enable them, to stop these illegal and unacceptable attacks. However, if necessary, the UK will not hesitate to respond again in self-defence.

Placating the sponsors of terror does not benefit our international order in the long run, or bring peace to the middle east or elsewhere in Europe or the world. The truth is that we cannot ignore the importance of these great waterways for shipping. That is the reason the world backs the United Nations convention on the law of the sea. It is the reason New Zealand has joined the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, Bahrain, Denmark and the Netherlands in providing support to this weekend’s air strikes. As an island nation, we have always appreciated freedom of navigation and the fact that it is intrinsic to our way of life. If we do not deal with these threats, every nation will be poorer. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 3:39, 5 February 2024

I thank the Defence Secretary for the advance copy of his statement.

We back the UK-US airstrikes that took place at the weekend to protect shipping in the Red sea. We know that the strikes were carried out against Houthi command centres and weapons stores. We accept that they were limited, necessary and targeted to minimise the risk of civilian casualties. The Houthis are attacking the ships of many nations, threatening maritime security and international trade, and putting civilian and military lives in serious danger. That is why the UN Security Council passed last month a resolution condemning Houthi actions in the strongest possible terms and demanding that their attacks stop.

We accept that the strikes we justified, but will the Defence Secretary confirm that they were also effective? Were the targets selected the targets hit? Was the purpose of destroying the drone control centres at As-Salif and Al-Munirah fully achieved? Ministers have said that the aims of the strikes are, first, to deter Houthi attacks, and secondly, to degrade their capabilities. The first aim has not yet succeeded, as Houthi attacks continue, but is the fact that those attacks are now less sophisticated and more sporadic a sign that the second aim may be succeeding? This is the third UK-US strike in the past three weeks. At what stage do three one-off strikes become a sustained campaign? If this does develop into continuing military action, at what stage will the Government give Parliament a say?

Before I turn to the wider role of UK forces in the Red sea, let me make this point: it is the Prime Minister who should be making this statement to the House, just as he did after the two previous UK strikes on Houthi targets. It is the Prime Minister’s responsibility to authorise such UK military action in the name of the Cabinet, advised by others, of course, including and especially the Defence Secretary. The Government risk downgrading respect for the convention that, having given the go-ahead for such action, it is the Prime Minister who then reports directly to this House.

We also back the leading role of the Royal Navy in the continuing defence of shipping from all nations in the Red sea. What action are the Government taking to persuade other countries to join the Prosperity Guardian protection force? How long does the Defence Secretary expect Operation Prosperity Guardian to be needed? How will the EU’s new maritime mission to the Red sea co-ordinate operations with Prosperity Guardian? Two weeks ago, I asked the Defence Secretary if a UK carrier was ready to deploy to the Red sea. We now know that HMS Queen Elizabeth has serious problems, so does the UK still have the option of sending a carrier to the Red sea if required, and if so, when? Military action on its own cannot solve the problems in the region. What is the Government’s diplomatic action to pressure the Houthis to cease their attacks and settle the civil war in Yemen, and to pressure Iran to stop supplying weapons and intelligence to the Houthis?

Finally, like the Defence Secretary, 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 at least five years—not just for the 121 days since 7 October. Those attacks do absolutely nothing for the Palestinian people, whose agonies are now extreme. We want the Gaza fighting to stop now with a humanitarian truce that can build into a sustainable ceasefire, to stop the killing of innocent civilians, get all the remaining hostages out and get much more aid into Gaza. The UK aid efforts must be accelerated. Have any more RAF flights taken off since the Defence Secretary was last in this Chamber, and if not, why not?

Finally, for long-term peace, there has to be a political process that can turn the rhetoric around two states living side by side in peace into reality. The House is united in that UK vision, and I give this commitment from our side: if elected to form the next Government, Labour will lead this new push for peace.

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

First, I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s support for this action. He asked a series of questions, which I will rattle through. Were the actions effective? Yes, they hit the targets. Were all the targets hit? Again, yes. We are still carrying out surveillance to find out the exact impact, but I think we can be very confident that all the relevant objectives were reached. We combined very closely with our US colleagues, and sometimes interchanged some of those targets with them. The right hon. Gentleman will have noted that, on this occasion, we were involved in dropping munitions on more targets than previously, so we carried a slightly greater weight than before.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the action was successful, and rightly pointed out that what we are seeing is rather more sporadic: the attacks, including on HMS Diamond and on merchant shipping, have continued, but in a much more ad hoc fashion. It is perhaps relevant that there has been no attack using multiple different weapons at the same time, which we saw, for example, on 11 January. The degrading will have had some impact on that.[This section has been corrected on 6 February 2024, column 3MC — read correction] (Correction) I will come back to the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about the Prime Minister at the end—I want to set the record straight.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about Operation Prosperity Guardian. The simple answer, of course, is that none of us knows how long it will need to continue for, but we want it to come to a conclusion as quickly as possible.

We utterly reject any notion that these continued attacks by the Houthis are anything to do with the situation in Gaza. The Houthis are opportunist pirates who are using a situation to their benefit: a few years ago, they did not even support Hamas, but suddenly they want to be their greatest champions. They are over 2,000 kilometres away from Gaza; they are simply using the situation to their advantage, and it is wise for the House to not over-link the two. None the less, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to about the need to see a humanitarian truce and a sustainable ceasefire—that is the Government’s policy. We are working extremely hard to try to achieve that, including through discussions that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and myself are having. Just yesterday, I was having those discussions in the middle east.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about RAF flights. The issue is not getting the aid to location—I have been working very closely with the Cypriot Government, for example, on how we can increase the amount of aid. The single biggest problem remains getting the aid into the country. We had some success with getting Kerem Shalom open, but what we really need to see is Ashdod open, in order to route that aid to Kerem Shalom and straight into Gaza. The Government and I will continue to push for that route, but the problem is not the flights taking off; it is the aid getting in.

Finally, turning to the fact that it is myself as Defence Secretary standing at the Dispatch Box, rather than the Prime Minister, the first thing to say is that it is the Secretary of State for Defence who actually has legal responsibility for these actions—who signs off the targets and, indeed, the legal authority. Technically, it is me who should be standing here, other than for the first couple of rounds, where the Prime Minister was dealing with something new and it was therefore very appropriate for him to be at the Dispatch Box.

The wider point that I would gently make to the right hon. Gentleman, though, is that the Prime Minister is in Northern Ireland today, doing incredibly important work—[Interruption.] I hear from a sedentary position the suggestion that we should have been recalled yesterday, but I unsure whether that would have been entirely practical. It is entirely appropriate that the Prime Minister is in Northern Ireland. I would have thought that the House would welcome the fact that that historic breakthrough has been marked by the Prime Minister, and it is very appropriate that I am here today to explain the activity of Saturday night to the House.

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

Do the Government accept that it is difficult to deter terrorist fanatics, and that one mainly has to contain the effectiveness of what they do until they are ultimately destroyed, preferably by our regional allies? Does the Secretary of State feel that there is in fact a link to a separate conflict, and that is the conflict in Ukraine? Is it not more than a coincidence that the proxies of Russia’s ally in the middle east have been so much more active while Russia is so desperate for us to turn our attention away from supporting Ukraine?

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

As ever, my right hon. Friend has absolutely hit the nail on the head. Russia and Iran are working together. Actually, the same kind of drones—sometimes the Shahed drones—that are being fired in Ukraine by the Russians, courtesy of Iran, are also being fired by the Houthis. He makes an excellent linkage point, and he is absolutely right.

Photo of Dave Doogan Dave Doogan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero)

The people of Scotland and elsewhere on these islands deserve to know what the plan is for this crisis in the Red sea—not the timings, the detail of missions, the tactical ambition or the resources behind these, but the broad strategy being pursued with lethal force in our name and in the absence of parliamentary approval. We have already made it clear from the SNP Benches that we support the Government and international partners in direct action to uphold freedom of navigation and the law of the sea, but this should never have been taken for granted and it remains subject to a realistic interpretation of both self-defence and imminence.

We see the toll that Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has taken on our constituents and businesses over energy costs, so we cannot allow this to be compounded further by interrupting global supply chains, nor can we ever tolerate or stand idly by while seafarers are put at risk, whatever the supposed aims of the Houthis or their backers may be.

Will this be a sustained engagement? I do not know, and neither does the rest of Parliament. One way or another, an allied seaborne strike capability will be engaged, so with one of the two aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy out of commission again, the Type 23 frigate fleet on its knees, and the Type 43 destroyer fleet still going through PIP—the power improvement project—who in the Government has a grip of the Royal Navy’s resources? Fundamentally, what is the UK Government’s plan to ensure that this campaign is not escalatory, and what is the thinking behind any assessment that they have made?

In closing, this is not about supporting Gazans, or people dying or fleeing persecution in Gaza, but about the Houthis pursuing their own aims. However, I would be interested to know what the Government’s assessment is of the uptick in temperature in the middle east—in Gaza, in Yemen and with NATO ally personnel being killed.

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

Listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, I detect that he supports the action that has been taken. As I have said, it cannot be right that international shipping is prevented from its own freedom of navigation. Again, respecting the will of the House and listening very carefully, it is quite clear that the official Opposition support this action, as do the Government and, as I now learn, do those on his own Benches, and I remember the Liberal Democrats saying it previously. So I think it is quite clear that there is a strong support in this House. It is also important that there is sufficient freedom of action to ensure the safety and security of our airmen and women when they undertake these actions, rather than flagging them substantially in advance.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned—and so did John Healey—the aircraft carrier, and I should just address this point. It is the case that, actually through an abundance of caution on a final inspection, the decision was taken for the aircraft carrier not to sail. I have spoken to the First Sea Lord, who has made it clear to me that, if there had been an emergency situation—the House will recall that it was going to join Exercise Steadfast Defender—it quite probably would have sailed. The fact is that we have another one, and that will sail to the exercise.

On the frigates and the destroyers, I just disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I have been out to visit those on HMS Diamond in the Red sea, and they are absolutely prepared and ready to go.

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

As the hon. Gentleman says, that is one, but today that ship has been replaced by HMS Richmond, which now takes on that mantle. We have 16 ships under construction or on order. I wonder how many we would get from the SNP, with its approach to defence.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

I thank my right hon. Friend for his in-depth statement, but there is concern about stretching the Royal Navy. It is a leading, world-class Navy, but it is suffering from personnel issues in crewing the ships, and responsibility for that lies back at the Treasury providing the revenue streams needed to make sure the capital equipment we have got can be used most effectively. What representations is my right hon. Friend making to ensure that the growth in maritime concerns around the world will be met by a commitment from the Treasury?

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

On a wider armed forces and MOD note, we have £288.6 billion for equipment over the next 10 years. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that that has to be matched with the sailors, the airmen and women and the Army able to resource that equipment, and I have some good news for him. Since we have been talking very actively about these issues, we have seen an eight-year high in applications to the Royal Navy, a six-year high in applications to the Army and a 42% increase between this January and last January in applications to join the Royal Air Force. I predict we are making progress.

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

I wonder whether the Secretary of State has seen the front page of the Financial Times today because it outlines how Iran has been using Lloyds and Santander accounts to evade sanctions. The US is accusing front companies of funding the IRGC with hundreds of millions of dollars and working with Russian intelligence to raise money for Iranian proxies. I am sure all in this House would be appalled to know that money laundered here in our capital is being used against our own troops by the Houthis, so what assessment have the Government made of those allegations by our ally? Does that not yet again show that we must proscribe the IRGC now?

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

This issue is repeatedly raised in the House and the hon. Lady will know, as she will have heard the responses many times before, that we do not routinely comment on proscription. It is the case however that we do sanction, and we have sanctioned the entirety of the IRGC already, as well as taken a number of different actions. She will appreciate that this matter does not come directly within the Defence portfolio, but I know that she will have the opportunity to press Foreign Office and Home Office Ministers at a future time, and we do keep this matter under constant review.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I agree with the Secretary of State and the Government that we do not want to see an escalation in the region and that we want to be proportionate in our response and calibrate our response not to provoke and antagonise, but is it not the case that we might actually be hitting the wrong target—that we are hitting proxies of Iran and, while I believe in peace and diplomacy, the malevolent factor in the region, in all of this, is Iran? It might be the case that, while we have the best of diplomatic intentions and we do not want to provoke Iran to a major conflict with NATO, the US or the UK, putting off that decision now will cost more lives in the future. Iran and the regime—not the Iranian people but the regime in Iran—are behind all this. They are the ones destabilising Israel, the Abraham accords and so on. I hope the Secretary of State will take a strategic view and make hard choices on Iran, because, whether we like it or not, it is coming.

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

My right hon. Friend makes the excellent point that Iran is behind all this. Iran is behind Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis and the IRGC-aligned militia that we have seen attack not just American troops—I often hear it is American personnel have been attacked 160 separate times in Syria and Iraq, but in fact about a third of those occasions involved British troops as well. On every occasion, Iran is behind all of this. I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend and we are working hard to pressurise Iran into realising that its current approach can do no good at all and will destabilise the region, which it claims it does not want to do.

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

Let me first make the point that a direct attack on Iran would be insanity; the region would be provoked and others would be dragged into it. I understand why the Government are saying that it is wise “to not over-link” Houthis strikes with Gaza, but the reality is that the middle east region is on the edge of conflagration as a result of the war that is going on and the attacks on Gaza. The priority must therefore be to secure peace in Gaza. We have a limited role in that, but we know that Netanyahu would secure peace if pressurised to do so by the American Government, because realistically they are the only power that can influence him and Israeli strategy. What further talks have taken place with the Biden Government to ensure that they exercise the maximum pressure on Netanyahu to get to that peace negotiating table?

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

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware, I hope, that the UK and the US work very closely on this. I was in the States last week. I met Blinken, Lloyd Austin and others to discuss exactly the points that the right hon. Gentleman raises about how we bring together a solution that not only provides, ultimately, the Palestinian state for the Palestinian people, but security guarantees for Israel. It is also important to realise that we are working closely in a number of different spheres, including on the Lebanese border, where we are working hard to try to prevent a further conflict there. We should remember that 125,000 Israelis have had to move from that border because of the activity of Lebanese Hezbollah. We are working with the Lebanese Government. I saw the Yemeni Defence Minister yesterday, and we discussed how to prevent that conflict from becoming part of this, too. The Government are pulling every single possible diplomatic lever in what is clearly a very complex position.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

The Defence Secretary is right that this mission must continue to stand up and defend international laws in the Red sea, but the mission to remove the Houthi threat and keep the Red sea safe could last months, and it is not sustainable to continue tasking Typhoons from Cyprus for each mission or subsequent future threats. Will the Defence Secretary therefore agree that there is a case for an urgent operational requirement to upgrade the Type-45 destroyers, given the continued inability of their vertical launch systems to strike targets at range inland?

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

I know that my right hon. Friend takes a huge interest in this matter, and he will be interested to hear that on Friday I was on HMS Somerset in Devonport, where they are fitting a surface-to-surface system, which may or may not be appropriate in this particular type of conflict. I want to take issue with one thing. We are in a coalition here, working with the US and others. As we have demonstrated repeatedly, there is no issue with Typhoons flying a long distance. Indeed, when America carried out their unrelated attacks for Tower 22, they flew all the way from the United States. Flying a long distance is no sign that the capability is not there in itself.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

Will the Secretary of State please have another go at giving a better answer to the question from Layla Moran about the extremely serious report in today’s Financial Times that two of Britain’s main banks are indirectly helping to fund the Houthis, with whom we are now in some sort of conflict?

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

The right hon. Gentleman will have heard my answer a moment ago. I know that he wants me to go into further detail, but I am unable to do that at the Dispatch Box right now. We have noted both the question and the article of this morning. We are also intensely engaged in finding the best way to ensure that Iranian influence, whether through the UK or in the region, is limited. I do not think I can go further at this moment.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

The Houthi rebels are violent extremist antisemites, and it is right that we take action to combat their aggression in the Red sea. It seems that there is success in degrading their capabilities. Is the Secretary of State confident that we will get to the point where we can stop the attacks altogether?

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

I think the clock is running down for the Houthis, in as much as their ability is being degraded, as my right hon. Friend points out—they do not have the eyes and ears from the radar stations; they are more reliant still on Iran, and only the UK and the US have done interdictions of their weapons. There is a limitation to this. None the less, we still think that would continue, if they choose to, even at that lower level, but it is important that they cease and stop this. We are putting pressure on, as I have described, through every possible means, including very extensive talks that I had yesterday in Saudi Arabia with various different people, including not just the Saudis but the Yemenis themselves.

Photo of Apsana Begum Apsana Begum Labour, Poplar and Limehouse

Will the Secretary of State confirm what the long-term strategy is and how it relates to the ongoing precarious situation in Yemen? Do the Government plan to commit to sustained military action? If so, surely it is only right for Parliament to have its say in the appropriate way.

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

This is the third time that we have come to Parliament and made a statement—I know that the hon. Lady has made other contributions to the debate—so we do feel that Parliament is being fully engaged in the process. We are not looking to make this a sustained, long-term military action. Indeed, I can guarantee for the House that if the Houthis stop, we will have absolutely no requirement again to drop munitions on them. But it is a fact that they are the ones interrupting international maritime activity, and we cannot stand by and allow that to happen.

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

The Defence Secretary cannot comment specifically on target acquisition, but will he please confirm to the House that our intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance is focused on those Houthi capabilities directly engaged in the attacks on international shipping? Is it reasonable to assume that further degradation of those capabilities will result in increased security in the Red sea?

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

My hon. Friend asks a good question that has not yet been asked. The answer is yes. We are looking carefully, and the locations chosen on this occasion were indeed from a combination of US and UK intelligence.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

The Government are right to have this strong response for what may seem to many to be a faraway war or incident, but which could impact so much on people’s lives here in the United Kingdom, through food shortages, supply chain disruption and inflation. Given the reports about shortages of Royal Navy personnel, the difficulty with munitions, the difficulties with some ships and now the increased demands on the Navy because of tensions with China and Russia—maybe even Argentina in future—will the Secretary of State assure us that we have the capability to play our part in keeping supply chains open? What discussions has he had with other allies to get them involved in the task of supporting us in this job?

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

The right hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of trade. Some 90% of our goods come to this country via the sea, so it really matters to the United Kingdom, but it matters to the whole world. He mentions personnel, munitions and so on, as have one or two other Members. In my time as Defence Secretary, I have not been unable to deploy exactly where I have needed to, for example at the request of NATO when we deployed to Kosovo—they have returned home now—or for this conflict in the middle east, where we have needed to carry out the actions that we are discussing. On each occasion, those have been available. I previously mentioned a £288 billion 10-year programme on equipment and the success in recruiting more personnel. I encourage other countries to match our defence budget, which is comfortably above 2% of GDP and heading up to 2.5%—the sooner they do that, the better.

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich

I fully support the Government’s action in the Red sea. The irony of the Iranian regime accusing us of destabilising the region through our actions will not be lost on reasonable people. Does the Secretary of State agree that those demonstrators on the streets of London applauding what the Houthi rebels have been doing are at best useful idiots and at worst truly the enemy within?

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

I use my own language, but it is disgraceful to see people go out and support those who are indiscriminately firing at merchant ships—that is absolutely appalling. I will not repeat my hon. Friend’s language; I will put that support down to ignorance rather than anything else.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

The Secretary of State is rightly clear about breaches of international law by the Houthis in the Red sea. Can he be equally clear about breaches of international law by all sides in Gaza? Does he think it will help reduce hostilities across the middle east if the Government can build a broader international coalition in support of their diplomatic and military aims?

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

The United Kingdom Government always want international humanitarian law to be adhered to, and we make that point repeatedly to every side in this conflict. I think the hon. Gentleman is driving at Israel. To answer his question directly, Israel is included. Hamas could end the conflict very quickly if they release the hostages that they have kidnapped and cease firing on Israel. On the wider coalitions, I described how New Zealand is now on board with the military action, but I should mention that 20-plus countries are involved in Operation Prosperity Guardian, and the EU has formed an additional operation, which we welcome.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons), Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons)

Further to the question from my hon. Friend Tom Hunt, as well as open support for the Houthis this weekend on the streets of central London, some protestors in the pro-Palestinian marches again called for an intifada and held up deeply racist antisemitic signs, one of which included informing Israelis—we presume Jewish Israelis—that they were indigenous to nowhere other than hell. I am not sure that it is just ignorance; I think something more sinister is at play among some of the protestors. We should call it what it is: pure and simple Jew hate. Will the Secretary of State inform the House whether he has spoken to anyone else across Government about more action to deal with some of the hate on our streets?

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

The Home Secretary continuously keeps this matter under review, and meets police chiefs to ensure that they have the powers to combat what my hon. Friend rightly describes as absolutely disgusting behaviour, which has no place at all on our streets. I am sure that the whole House needs no reminding, but perhaps the people who go out campaigning do: the Houthis’ slogan is “Death to America, death to Israel, death to the Jews no matter where they are.” There is no place for that on the streets of Britain.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North

It is an extraordinary situation where the Secretary of State comes here, makes a matter-of-fact statement about the launch of missiles against a number of targets and countries, gives no indication of the long-term war aim by the UK at present, and says absolutely nothing about the crying, desperate need for a ceasefire to protect the people of Gaza from further death and destruction. Does he not realise that the extension of the conflict by Britain and the United States to at least four other countries risks a huge conflagration across the whole region? I would have been much happier had he come here and said that Britain was determined to try to deal with the injustices in the region and to bring about a peace process rather than further militarisation of the seaways around all those countries. Surely peace is something to aim for, rather than the continuation of yet more wars.

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

Never have I disagreed so much with the right hon. Gentleman—and that is saying something, given that he wants to scrap Trident and pull us out of NATO. The statement is on the Red sea. I am surprised that he is not more appreciative of the geography. The attacks in the Red sea are a very long way from Gaza. He misunderstands why I have come to this House: to talk about munitions on a single country, not three countries, as he said. I spoke to the Yemeni Government yesterday, who thank us for our work. It is a shame that he cannot do the same.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

I commend the Defence Secretary for his excellent work. He talked about Yemen. Its Foreign Minister, Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak, said on Thursday that there is no doubt that Iran’s Quds Force operatives have been deployed to his own coastline. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the extent of Iran’s aggressive military adventurism and its destabilising effect on international peace and security?

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

Quite simply, Iran is a malign influence not just on Yemen but on the entire region. My right hon. and learned Friend is right to point out the manner in which it has helped to create instability in the Red sea. I am afraid that the only language that the Iranians understand is the approach that we have been taking: to show them that there is a red line and they have crossed it.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Exports)

I completely understand and agree with the need to protect international shipping and maritime security and to ensure the safety of civilians and seafarers in the Red sea. However, some of us are also concerned about a wider escalation in this already volatile region. Will the Defence Secretary outline what steps the Government are taking, diplomatic or otherwise, to stop us being sucked into an escalating regional conflict?

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

The actions we are discussing are very specific and targeted, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise. They are not open to being repeated unless the attacks on us continue, so they can actually be stopped immediately. In terms of wider diplomacy, which I have gone into in some detail, I have met with Sullivan, Blinken and Lloyd Austin in the States, while the Foreign Secretary has been doing the same with his opposite numbers. As I have just described, I was in the region until this morning, where I was having extensive discussions on how to bring this situation to a conclusion. I am afraid it is not always possible to provide a line-by-line explanation of every single element of those talks, which I appreciate is frustrating for the House, but we are making broad and strenuous efforts to achieve exactly what the hon. Gentleman is looking for.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

The Defence Secretary has said the Government are looking at a comprehensive strategy with a four-pronged approach to degrade the Houthis. We have classified the actions of the Houthis as terrorist and said that they pose a significant threat to British interests. I then look at the “Proscribed Terrorist Organisations” document from the House of Commons Library, which lists non-state actors Ansar Al Islam, Al Ittihad Al Islamia and Hezbollah, all of which meet the criteria for proscription, yet the Houthis are not proscribed as a terrorist organisation. The Secretary of State says that we have sanctioned some high-level individuals. The US has proscribed them; we have not.

My question to the Defence Secretary is this: will the UK set up a contact group to deal with non-state actors in the long term? This threat is not going to go away. The Houthis will splinter into other terrorist organisations in the region.

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

My hon. Friend rightly points out that the US has taken some action, although it is not quite the same as our proscription—what it has done in this case with the Houthis is sort of an in-between version. Of course, we have made sure that a number of individuals, whom I named in my comments, have effectively been dealt with. The wider question is getting the balance right between ensuring that food aid can still reach Yemen—that was the discussion I was having with the Yemeni Government yesterday—and full proscription. We need to make sure we get that balance right, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is working very closely on that. Whether one would call that a contact group or something else, I can assure my hon. Friend that the work is being done.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Trade), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Chief Whip

Like others, I commend the Government’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the broader conflict—and this one, in fact. If diplomatic means fail to resolve this particular conflict in the Red sea, is the Secretary of State determined to pursue the military option to the very end?

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

As I have described in answer to other Members, we see this action as being very specific and one that does not need to continue. What I do not see as being short term and specific is the diplomatic process that the hon. Gentleman refers to, which now needs to do what the world has been unable to do for decades: form a wider peace in the middle east. The pieces may be there, with potential normalisation between countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. Hamas’s intent, and Iran’s intent, is to disrupt all of that. We understand that, which is why we have to work all the harder to overcome their approach to creating instability in the region.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

We cannot overestimate the value of freedom of navigation in the region, so it is not surprising that New Zealand has joined the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, Bahrain, Denmark and the Netherlands in providing support over the weekend. What concerns me is Egypt, which faces both economic and social disadvantage. The Suez canal provides $9.4 billion of trade to the Egyptian economy, and the last thing we want is for that to be disrupted. Can the Secretary of State advise what he will do to help to counter the destabilising activity of the Houthi pirates in the region?

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

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that this is devastating for the Egyptian economy. I was in Egypt a couple of weeks ago, where I met my opposite number, the Egyptian Defence Minister, and we discussed exactly this point. Clearly, ships are avoiding the area and taking a much longer route around at the moment, so it is in everybody’s interests, and those of the Suez canal in particular, to see this resolved as quickly as possible.

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

It was reported last night that only the UK and US were involved actively in the military action over the weekend, with that being attributed to the different risk assessments that the UK and US had compared with other international partners. Is that the case? If so, will the Secretary of State discuss what the particular concerns were in the different risk assessments in respect of escalation of the conflict?

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

It is difficult for me to answer on why different countries would take part or not. A much wider group of countries take part in Operation Prosperity Guardian—the freedom of navigation part of this. A number of the other countries have actively provided assistance, including intelligence officers and the like. The truth of the matter is that only relatively few countries have the capability—the capacity—to carry out this action, and it should be a matter of pride that when push comes to shove, it is the UK that is able to step up and carry out some of this difficult work.

Photo of James Wild James Wild Conservative, North West Norfolk

Given the continuing attacks by Iranian-backed Houthis, will the Government, as well as pursuing diplomacy and trying to stop the illegal flow of weapons and finance, be prepared to intensify military action with our allies, in self-defence, to degrade the ability to make further attacks on commercial shipping?

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

I should be absolutely clear: we will only act within international law. That law is about self-defence, so we respond to the attacks in turn. We are not looking to increase the implications of this, as I have described carefully, because we want to bring it to a close. However, this remains open-ended and we will have to go back if the attacks do not stop.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Alba, East Lothian

It is not simply the Houthis who say that this issue is inextricably linked to Gaza; the embassy of Yemen has made that clear in paragraph 4 of its letter to all MPs, and Brigadier Deverell, the former British military attaché in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, has said that it is linked. He has gone on to add that these strikes will fail and will not resolve the situation. So rather than lurching towards world war three, and rather than an escalation of the conflict, widening it beyond countries and this limited territory, is it not time to ensure that Israel is called to heel, that its genocide ceases and that we get an immediate ceasefire? [Interruption.]

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

I think the hon. Gentleman will detect that the House has not followed the logic of his argument. There is a difference between this absolutely not being inextricably linked to Gaza, apart from when Opposition Members might try to link it, and the Houthis claiming that it is somehow linked as a badge of convenience—as a way of trying to muscle in on that action. I am very, very sorry that the hon. Gentleman chooses to repeat their propaganda.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham

In addition to the IRGC deployment on the coastline of Yemen that my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Michael Ellis referenced, Tehran has deployed its Alborz warship to the Red sea. We also know that two US Navy SEALs have died after attempting to seize Iranian weapons bound for the Houthis, yet Iran continues to evade any meaningful deterrence. Does the Secretary of State agree that Iran must not be allowed to outsource the responsibility for its regional escalation to its proxies and must be deterred directly?

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

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about the link between the Iranian ships that loiter in the region and the items that are shipped to the Houthis, which we know come from Iran, because of the interdictions that we have made previously. It is probably wise if I do not go into too much detail, but to say that we are aware of this is absolutely correct, and the whole world needs to carry on piling the pressure on Iran to cease and desist from this behaviour.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

The Defence Secretary was right to highlight the risk to humanitarian aid in the region, not least given the catastrophic situation in Gaza. What steps has he deployed over the last four months, through air capability as well as sea capability, to establish routes for aid to reach Gaza by sea or by air?

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

I would link that with the action we have been taking to degrade the Houthis’ ability to prevent aid from reaching people. As I said in my statement, the Yemenis obtain almost all their food via the Red sea, so I would class all the action that we have taken, in three rounds of strikes, as very much part of getting that food into the country. As I mentioned, we provide significant amounts of aid, we feed about 100,000 Yemenis a month on the back of it, and it is the Houthis who are trying to prevent that from happening.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)

We support the right for shipping to pass freely. Having talked to businesses, I understand that they are already feeling the effects on their supply chains. If one of the purposes of the strikes is to deter the Houthis, it seems that they have not got the message yet, and it is not clear whether they ever will. I fear there is a risk that we are going to escalate action in the region. The Secretary of State has mentioned a number of activities that he has undertaken on a non-military basis to try to reduce tensions, but is there anything he can do that he has not done already to help end this conflict?

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

Although it is clear that the Houthi attacks have not ended, as the shadow Defence Secretary said, there does appear to have been a difference in the cadence. The mass attacks that we saw on 11 January, for example, have not been repeated, partly because the Houthis’ ability has been degraded.[This section has been corrected on 6 February 2024, column 3MC — read correction] (Correction) However, we are always looking at other means, including routes via the United Nations, and at the wider picture of, for instance, the peace treaty between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. All those elements fit into the way in which we are applying pressure to try to bring the situation to a close.

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

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for his strong and robust determination to stop the attacks on international shipping. I say, “Well done, Secretary of State,” and let me also say that we in the House, or certainly most of us, support the line that he is taking.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the fact that pro-Hamas Houthi sites are celebrating the effect that the strikes in the Red sea are having on food and other supply chains sends a signal that the words spoken and actions taken by this country—our Government—and our allies are not yet having the desired effect? What steps will the Secretary of State and our allies take not simply to prevent trade route difficulties from escalating already eye-watering prices, but to send the clear message that we in the United Kingdom are not afraid to use our strength and our intelligence to respond adequately and, if necessary, even more strongly?

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

The hon. Gentleman has made a very worthwhile point. It is clear that the Houthis, while perhaps no longer able to act as they once did, are not fully degraded. There must surely come a time when they understand that this is no longer in their interests, because we are working actively to intercept new supplies as far as possible and they will continue to be degraded if they continue to act as they have in respect of commercial shipping and, of course, the Royal Navy. There will eventually be a conclusion to that, but I do not want to mislead the House by saying that this is over, because I simply cannot guarantee that for one moment, so let me make it clear again from this Dispatch Box that we will always have to keep the option open if it is not over.