Middle East: Deployment of British Armed Forces - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:38 pm on 17 April 2024.

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Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 3:38, 17 April 2024

To ask His Majesty’s Government how they intend to consult Parliament on the deployment of British armed forces in the Middle East.

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, the Prime Minister and Government Ministers have consistently provided updates to Parliament through Written and Oral Statements, and through Oral and Topical Questions. However, publishing operational activity to Parliament in advance could undermine the effectiveness of an operation and potentially risk the lives of Armed Forces personnel involved. While the deployment of the Armed Forces is a prerogative power and the Government are under no legal obligation to seek parliamentary approval, we will continue to update the House as fully as appropriate.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. He is quite right that the Government have kept the House updated and given the Opposition the opportunity to continue to express their full support. Just over a decade ago, the then Foreign Secretary, now the noble Lord, Lord Hague of Richmond, speaking in the context of the Middle East, said that

“wherever possible, Parliament should have the opportunity to debate, in advance, the commitment of UK forces to military action overseas, unless there is an emergency where such action would not be appropriate”.

I think the whole House would agree that last Saturday night was such an exception.

With the news today that Israel has apparently decided to retaliate for that attack, the House will know that the situation is very serious. Does the Minister not agree that this would be a good time to clarify the role of Parliament in relation to the use of military force overseas? Does he think, on behalf of the Government, that some form of consultation should be enshrined in law? If so, will he bring forward a draft resolution for discussion and debate in both Houses?

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, the noble Viscount makes a very good point, and it is something that I will talk to my colleagues about. I do not believe that the situation has changed. We have said before that when these irregular, single-point actions—which are limited, proportionate, necessary and legal—are required, we will continue to take action to protect lives, particularly in self-defence, as we did over the weekend. If that situation should change, we will certainly review the situation; we will keep the House fully involved.

Photo of Lord Lee of Trafford Lord Lee of Trafford Liberal Democrat

My Lords, we are very fortunate to have the Foreign Secretary in our House. Indeed, it is probably the best decision that the Prime Minister has taken. It is an excellent idea that we have the Foreign Secretary here, and I hope this may be the norm in future. I hope the Labour Benches are focusing on this.

In a more serious vein, the Middle East situation is extremely serious. British forces have been involved. Surely we should now be having a major, full-day debate in this House on the Middle East, as a matter of urgency and priority, and regular debates as long as the situation continues.

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, that is something for the parliamentary scheduling people. A major debate at this point would be very useful but may take up far too much parliamentary time.

Photo of Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Conservative

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister take this opportunity to thank and congratulate the RAF pilots who prevented needless loss of life in Israel over the weekend? Will he take the opportunity to reaffirm our country’s long-standing relationship with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan—a relationship that goes back more than 100 years —which was brave and correct in defending its own territorial integrity over the weekend? That is exactly the kind of relationship that should in general be assumed, without needing to come back to Parliament for preauthorisation every time we stand by our old allies.

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend. I also place on the record my admiration, and that of the Government, for all our Armed Forces in what must be an extremely difficult situation. Operation Shader, which has been in place since 2014, has been a remarkable success, and very active. I did not realise that since it was put in place, the RAF has flown 8,700 sorties and released 4,300 precision weapons.

Photo of Lord Stirrup Lord Stirrup Crossbench

My Lords, the Minister may recall me saying in the context of a previous Question put to the Leader that the Armed Forces place enormous importance on the support of the British public for the difficult and dangerous things that they do, not least as expressed by the will of Parliament. At the same time, they have to rely, crucially, upon the principles of security and surprise, on which their effectiveness and safety depend. Is it not difficult to see how a piece of legislation brought before Parliament could balance those difficult, competing issues?

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The noble and gallant Lord makes a very good point, and it is certainly something that I will talk about. I could not agree with him more that operational security and force protection are at the very heart of what we are trying to do here, and must never be compromised.

Photo of Baroness Anderson of Stoke-on-Trent Baroness Anderson of Stoke-on-Trent Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, I remind the House of my registered interests, and specifically my association with the Royal Navy.

Our dedicated and professional service personnel are now deployed on several fronts in the Middle East, stabilising the region in the face of co-ordinated efforts by Iran and her proxies. Iran’s senseless aerial attack on Israel at the weekend undermined international airspace. Iran’s proxies in Yemen continue to undermine freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, and last week Iran seized the “MSC Aries” in the Strait of Hormuz, again threatening global maritime efforts. What additional capabilities are we planning to deploy to counter these threats?

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, as the noble Baroness and most of the House are aware, we do not discuss these things in advance, for fairly obvious reasons. However, an enormous amount of diplomatic effort is being put into trying to calm matters and get a more stable situation out there. As I am sure people are aware, my noble friend the Foreign Secretary is out in Israel today, trying to ensure that any further escalation of what is potentially an extremely dangerous situation across the entire region is canned.

Photo of Lord Green of Deddington Lord Green of Deddington Crossbench

My Lords, perhaps it is time that we learned from experience. In recent years British and western forces have been involved in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and none of them has turned out well. I pay tribute to the forces concerned—it was a question of the strategy and the political view that was taken—but we really need to be careful about this and not cause any more chaos in any more countries.

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, there are some fundamental rights and justifications that we as a responsible military power need to be prepared to step up and protect. I believe that these decisions are not taken lightly; they are taken extremely seriously. An enormous amount of thought and activity goes into each decision to take action, and that level of thinking should continue.

Photo of Lord Woodley Lord Woodley Labour

Will the Minister confirm that it was three British-supplied drones that killed three British aid workers last week in Gaza?

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, we do not comment on comments like that.

Photo of Lord Tugendhat Lord Tugendhat Conservative

My Lords, thanks to our armed services are all very well, but they are now being very much stretched. It would be good to hear something from the Government about increasing the defence budget rather than the taxes that can be lowered.

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, I am sure that most of the House is fully aware of where I sit on this. We have a finite amount of resource within this country, and it is a question of where that gets allocated. We are spending more this year on defence than we have ever spent before; it looks as if it is going to be about 2.3% or £55.6 billion. It would be fantastic to be able to buy more ships and planes and employ a whole lot more people, but the capability and ability of our Armed Forces protect this country extremely well.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, the last time that tensions rose in the Middle East, which sadly ended up with fighting going on, we had deployed in the north Arabian Sea an aircraft carrier, two nuclear submarines and eight destroyers and frigates. Does the Minister believe that what we have deployed there now, even with allied forces as well, is capable of protecting the two major maritime choke points that are so important to the world’s and our economy, or does he believe that we should have more there? Of course, that relates directly to cost and expenditure.

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The noble Lord is right. We are part of a substantial international force within both the Gulf and the Red Sea. Together, there is a significant amount of power there, hopefully to deter any further aggression by malign influences.