Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon debates with Leader of the House

There have been 1 exchanges between Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon and Leader of the House

Thu 19th April 2018 National Security Situation (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (2,490 words)

National Security Situation

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Excerpts
Thursday 19th April 2018

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Leader of the House
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon - Hansard

That this House takes note of the national security situation.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, I begin, if I may, on a slightly lighter note, given our serious subject. I could not but smile when I heard the great debate among your Lordships about jogging and taking up fitness. I am delighted to say that the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting has started very successfully at Buckingham Palace. However, seeing the gridlock that awaited me, I, along with the shadow Foreign Secretary, took to a sedate walk, but I then took to jogging to ensure that I reached your Lordships’ House on time. I think I should now subscribe to your Lordships’ jogging team—it would certainly do my waistline a great deal of benefit.

I am pleased to be opening this debate. I do so at a time when we are perhaps facing a greater range of challenges to our national security than we have seen in a generation. The picture is much more complex and in many ways arguably much less predictable than at any time since the Second World War. In particular, there are growing and diverse threats to the rules-based international order on which we have depended for our security, stability and prosperity for over 70 years. For decades, internationally agreed treaties, regimes and norms have helped to safeguard us against the worst excesses of human behaviour. Today they are being undermined and the safeguards flouted, not just by non-state actors but by states, with a flagrant disregard for their people and their international obligations. I assure noble Lords that the United Kingdom is standing firm in the face of these threats, and we will continue to do so. I will set out how we are doing that, and I will also update your Lordships’ House on our responses to the horrific chemical weapons attack in Syria—part of a continuing pattern of such attacks—and the reckless use of a nerve agent in Salisbury.

I am also pleased and delighted that I am joined by my noble friend Lord Howe, who brings great expertise and insight from his experience. I am delighted that he will close the debate, demonstrating again the seriousness with which the national security issue is taken across government.

Our 2015 strategic defence and security review foresaw this uncertain world and its emerging threats, but the trends it identified have come to pass even faster than anyone could have expected. The National Security Capability Review that the Government published last month identified a number of key changes. The first was a rise in state threats and state competition, in particular from Russia, which has expanded the range of its meddling beyond Ukraine to the western Balkans, Syria, and even to the outrageous attack on the streets of Salisbury. Russia has a long history of such behaviour, but it is now prepared to take greater risks. It more frequently uses disinformation and cyberattacks to meddle in other states’ affairs. In addition, Russia also continues to strengthen its military capabilities, including its nuclear and missile forces, while undermining the treaties and norms of global arms control, disarmament and counterproliferation.

The second key change is in the threat from terrorism and instability. With our international coalition partners we have made progress against the core of Daesh in Syria and Iraq. I had the opportunity to visit Iraq last month. I travelled to Mosul and I saw first-hand the importance of bringing Daesh to justice as well as how incredibly important it is that women and girls must play a central and pivotal role in stabilising the country—a belief I know we collectively share. I was delighted to launch the UK’s national action plan on women, peace and security while I was in Iraq. However, despite our success against the core of Daesh, we all recognise and know that the threat from extremist terrorism remains. Today, the threat has become more dispersed. This means that while Europe continues to face a threat from organised groups, there has also been a rise in less sophisticated attacks such as the ones that took place on the streets of London last year, in which the principal weapons were not bombs but vehicles and knives.

Another change identified by the review is the increasing threat to the rules-based international order that I mentioned earlier. This vital foundation for our peace and security is being intentionally degraded. I am the Minister for the United Nations, and when you look at that international body, you will see that Russia has used its veto 12 times to stall the work of the UN Security Council on Syria, using fundamentally flawed and wilfully misleading pretexts to prevent the action the international community needs to take. Syria’s repeated use of chemical weapons and North Korea’s multiple nuclear explosive and ballistic missile tests have flouted international legal obligations.

At the same time, Russia’s new missile programmes raise serious questions about whether it is still complying with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, one of the cornerstones of US-Russia strategic stability. Of course, we should not and do not consider these threats in isolation since each can impact on the other. For example, the risk of non-state actors getting hold of biological, chemical or nuclear material increases when states wilfully erode the treaties, conventions and indeed the norms that are designed to prevent the proliferation of such material.

Thus far I have painted what perhaps some would say is a very gloomy picture, but it is important to recognise that this is only one side of the story. The UK enjoys a range of world-leading capabilities in defence, diplomacy, intelligence and cybersecurity. Let me say how pleased I was, in this Commonwealth summit week, to see that yesterday the Prime Minister was able to announce a £15 million package of support for Commonwealth countries to strengthen their cybersecurity capabilities. In addition to these significant assets, the UK also projects formidable influence thanks to sharing our experience of democracy, on how to build, sustain and strengthen democracies, as well as in its support for the media and cultural organisations. I refer also to the incredible work undertaken across the world by our NGOs and other civil society groups.

We are not facing these threats alone. Our international partnerships are robust and our global influence is significant, as we have seen in the wake of the recent events in Syria and Salisbury. Let me turn now to the specific threats to our national security.

In Syria, the ongoing conflict continues not only to cause untold pain for the Syrian people—women, children and men—but also to threaten the stability of neighbouring countries and wider international security. The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime causes extreme human suffering in Syria and is a clear challenge to the international rules that keep us all safe. Before it was blocked by a series of Russian vetoes in New York, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism found that the regime had used chemical weapons not once, not twice, but in four separate incidents between 2014 and 2017.

In Douma, on 7 April, there was yet another chemical weapons attack which killed up to 75 people, including many women and children. Let me assure noble Lords that we have worked with our allies to establish what happened. Russia’s grotesque accusation that the attack was somehow staged by the United Kingdom does not deserve to be dignified by any further response. A significant amount of information, including intelligence, indicates that this was a chemical weapons attack and that the Syrian regime was responsible. It is the latest horrifying example of the lengths it is prepared to go to and the human suffering it is prepared to inflict.

The Syrian regime’s persistent pattern of behaviour had to be stopped. We sought diplomatic channels to achieve this. Let me answer a question that has been raised and assure noble Lords that we will continue to do so, but our efforts have been repeatedly thwarted. There was no practicable alternative to the use of force to alleviate humanitarian suffering. The military action we took, closely co-ordinated with our allies, the United States and France, was proportionate and took every step to avoid civilian casualties. Our strikes were carefully targeted to alleviate humanitarian suffering by degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring its future use. The strikes sent a clear message to Bashar al-Assad and others who might be bent on undermining the international rules-based order: we were prepared to take action to defend that order. As the Prime Minister has said, the strikes were legally and morally right. The way we protect our national interest is by standing up for the global rules and standards that keep us all safe.

I turn now to the events in Salisbury. The attempted assassination of Sergei and Yulia Skripal was another example of blatant disdain for the established framework of international rules. However, I am sure I speak for all in your Lordships’ House when I say it was good to hear that, despite the poor early prognosis, Yulia Skripal was well enough to be discharged from hospital last week. That is testimony to the quick and professional response of the emergency services and the incredible NHS staff, and I hope—I am sure I speak for all Members of your Lordships’ House—that Sergei Skripal’s condition also continues to improve.

On 12 April, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons explicitly confirmed the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical used in Salisbury. This supports our finding that it was a military-grade nerve agent known as Novichok. The OPCW report also noted that it had high levels of purity. This is indicative of expert production in the kind of controlled scientific environment more likely to be found in a state than in, say, a criminal or terrorist network. Of course, although the identification of the nerve agent is an essential piece of technical evidence in our investigation, neither Porton Down’s analysis nor the OPCW’s report identifies the country or place of origin of the agent used in this attack. We continue to assess that there is no plausible alternative explanation for what happened in Salisbury to Russian state responsibility.

In his letter to the NATO Secretary-General, our National Security Adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill, published details of Russia’s programme of testing means of delivering nerve agents, including their application to door handles, where the highest concentration of the nerve agent, Novichok, was found in Salisbury. He also detailed the Russian intelligence services’ interest in the Skripals, going back at least as far as 2013. He concluded:

“Only Russia has the technical means, operational experience and the motive”.

That view is shared by our allies, who showed their support with the unprecedented expulsion of 153 Russian diplomats from 28 countries and NATO. This unified international response was vital in signalling a collective condemnation of Russia’s actions, and we welcome the latest strong statement of support from the G7 earlier this week.

For its part, Russia has provided no explanation for the existence of undeclared chemical weapons or of how this substance came to be released on British soil. Instead, it has responded to legitimate questioning with a barrage of denials and disinformation, pointing the finger of blame at other countries, including the United Kingdom. To date, through Russian state media and official sources, more than two dozen contradictory and changing fantasies have been proposed to explain who carried out the Salisbury attack—from the Americans, to destabilise the world, to Ukraine, to frame Russia. This disinformation campaign has not worked, as the world’s eyes are now open to Russia’s attempts at malign influence.

The attack in Salisbury is part of a pattern of Russian aggression over the past decade, from the murder of Alexander Litvinenko to its actions in Crimea and Ukraine. In all cases, the UK has been at the forefront of a strong and determined international response. Sanctions form a key part of that response. EU sanctions have been in place since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, sending a clear message to the Kremlin that the West will not tolerate its flagrant violation of international law. These sanctions are beginning to bite. The Government are committed to imposing further sanctions if necessary to counter Russia’s malign actions here in the UK, including criminality, corruption and illicit finance.

We are also prepared to call out activity that breaches norms of responsible state behaviour in cyberspace. In conjunction with international partners, we attributed NotPetya to the Russian military. The joint UK/US advice to industry earlier this week marks an important step in our fight-back against state-sponsored aggression in cyberspace. We will continue to take the necessary actions to counter Russian aggression, but I make it absolutely clear that our quarrel is not with the Russian people and this is not where we want our relationship to be. We held out the hand of engagement but have been given every signal to beware. Instead of this atmosphere of mutual suspicion and the imposition of sanctions, we would prefer to nurture the flourishing cultural links between our countries and maintain, sustain and grow trade. We hope that the Kremlin will take a different path.

In the meantime, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, we must, where possible, along with two other permanent members, maintain a dialogue. Russia and the UK are members of the Security Council and I know that this question has been raised by various noble Lords; indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the specific issue of continuing dialogue internationally. I assure noble Lords that, as members of the Security Council, this dialogue continues. We do so because we face common challenging issues which impact international security, such as those around North Korea and Iran. We will also continue to encourage Russia to engage constructively on military issues of concern through the NATO-Russia dialogue.

In conclusion, the threats we face are significant and varied. As most of us accept, they threaten not just the UK’s national security but that of our allies and the whole international system on which our collective security depends. In the face of these threats, the United Kingdom stands firm and resolute: in the United Nations Security Council, where we continue to push for peace in Syria and the removal of nuclear weapons from North Korea; in defending our data, our systems and our citizens from cyberattack and hostile state activity; in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, where we will continue to work to restore and sustain the integrity of the Chemical Weapons Convention; and in our determination to end the use of chemical weapons once and for all, wherever it may occur, and to seek justice for the victims of these heinous crimes. We remain absolutely committed to defending our freedom, democracy and rule of law, and to upholding the international rules-based system on which our security and prosperity depend. I beg to move.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab) - Hansard

My Lords, I welcome the fact that the Government have brought forward this debate, given both the importance of recent events and the seriousness of the issues that have been raised. I thank the Minister for his introduction to the debate, which, given its nature, was hugely wide ranging. I thank him also for his excellent work at CHOGM. We welcome the fact that he leads for the Government on human rights issues, and nobody in this House would doubt his personal commitment to the issues for which he has ministerial responsibility.

Today’s debate provides an opportunity for us to discuss recent issues but also to look at the wider context. In considering our response to recent events, we have to examine our national security and our international role in the long-term strategy for peace and stability in regions of conflict.

There can never be any justification for using chemical weapons. Both the Geneva protocol and, more recently, the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992 make clear that their use is illegal under international law. Yet the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians is well documented, in a conflict that is estimated to have left around half a million people dead and many thousands more injured, maimed and displaced. The appalling attack on Douma was the latest and the most serious in Syria, with hundreds of people affected and around 70 dead.

However, as we have found, this is not just something that happens hundreds of miles away. As the Minister referred to, we have been shocked by the deliberate and calculated use of a nerve agent here on UK soil in the attempted murder of two individuals without any concern for others who may have been affected. We concur with the Minister’s good wishes to all those who have been affected and wish them a full recovery. It is clear that the use of chemical weapons is a serious global issue and we should condemn their use totally and unreservedly. We should also work internationally through the UN and our European allies in full support of the OPCW to ensure that such weapons cannot be manufactured or used in conflict.

Following the multilateral attack on Syrian chemical installations last week, the Prime Minister was clear that she considered that the Government fully complied with international law and that there was no need for Parliament to be consulted. We fully accept that it is not always possible or appropriate for Parliament to be consulted prior to military action. Sometimes, it will be because emergency action is required. There may also be times when operational reasons dictate that it is not possible to provide for such a debate. However, other Prime Ministers have considered it appropriate to consult Parliament, so it would be helpful if the Government today were able to provide the reasons why they believe that prior parliamentary engagement was not appropriate in this case. I am not challenging the Government’s judgment but seeking clarity on the principles of consulting, debating and voting in Parliament in advance of military action. I asked this of the Leader of the House on Monday, but she was unable to provide an answer, so if the Minister is able to do so today, I would be grateful.

It is imperative that we ensure that we act at all times within international law and conventions. It is what we ask of others and the standard that we set for ourselves. On Monday, I asked what discussions the Government had had with the UN about the principle of humanitarian intervention and whether any such discussions were ongoing. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House was unable to answer, but it would be helpful to know whether discussions are taking place on such an important issue.

In Syria, as in any area of conflict, there is an urgent need to provide humanitarian relief and medical care, both to refugees forced from their homes and to those who have remained. This country has a proud history of supporting those fleeing violence and having to flee their home country. The Minister will know the strong support that this House gave to the amendment of my noble friend Lord Dubs to what became the Immigration Act 2016. Across Europe, unaccompanied children in camps in Greece, Italy and elsewhere are feeling exactly the anguish and the danger that we have seen in Syria. We had hoped that under the Dubs amendment we would have been able to settle 3,000 children in the UK, and yet, even against the Government’s promise of fewer than 500, by the end of last year there were still more than 200 places available under the scheme. Given the desperate plight of these children, can the Minister provide an update on how both the spirit and the letter of the Dubs amendment to protect children, as unaccompanied minors in danger, will be implemented? As the Minister knows, my noble friend Lord Dubs has tabled an amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to ensure that we maintain at least this commitment.

Military action should only ever be one thread of a strategy. Without diplomatic and political efforts, and without humanitarian support, no conflict will ever be resolved in a way that has long-term sustainability. The OPCW must be allowed to continue its work in Syria unhindered. To date, its inspectors have still not gained access to the site. Does the Minister have an update on this and what action our Government are able to take to help secure that access? We know that the conflict in Syria is complex and multifaceted, but, without an increased focus on diplomatic efforts and a credible plan for de-escalation, the conflict will continue. It would be helpful if the Minister, in his response, could expand on what will happen over the next few weeks in terms of the broader strategy. The Foreign Affairs Council in Europe has met to discuss the possibility of taking further action. Can the Minister provide any update on what form that could take? What efforts are being made to restore the diplomatic process to seek a political solution?

The national and international security situation presents ever-evolving challenges and threats to the UK. Our nation’s defences are facing unprecedented challenges. These recent events have brought into sharp focus the urgent need for the Government to make strategic defence decisions, taking into account UK defence capabilities and operational requirements.

The recruitment and retention in our Armed Forces can be described as nothing short of a crisis. The overall offer to service personnel is continuing to fall under this Government. That is having a devastating effect on recruitment and on retention. The National Audit Office report published earlier this week found that the Armed Forces are experiencing their biggest staffing shortfall for a decade, including—worryingly—a recruitment crisis among intelligence analysts. I was struck by the warning from General Sir Richard Barrons, the former commander of the Joint Forces Command, who said,

“you can either stop denying that defence is unable to deliver the things it is required to deliver, or you are going to watch it fail”.

That is a terrible indictment.

Our capabilities must reflect the changing environment, with threats, as the Minister outlined in his introduction, posed by Russia, North Korea and groups such as Islamic State. The Government have to focus on what role we want our Armed Forces to play internationally and the resources that are needed to maintain the security of the UK. The Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, advised in a recent speech that Russia poses a major threat that the UK will struggle to confront without an increase in defence spending. Huge challenges for the Ministry of Defence remain, and the Government must commit to no further hollowing out of our Armed Forces and our defence capabilities.

The threats faced at home today are also unprecedented. We have to ensure that we have the right resources, the right measures and the right technology to meet those challenges. Is the Minister confident that we are effectively using the existing measures and powers that we have, including economic sanctions and protections? As well as the additional powers announced following Salisbury, will the Minister update the House on the use of existing powers such as, for example, unexplained wealth orders to tackle the flow of illicit money into the UK economy?

I also raise the role of policing in security. Our national security is protected by our exemplary Armed Forces and intelligence services, but it is also protected day in, day out, by police officers operating in our communities. When the Minister spoke at the beginning, he referred to the unprecedented attacks that we have seen in London and Manchester as well as Salisbury. The head of UK counterterror policing, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, warned last year that cuts to local policing could have a potentially disastrous impact on counterterrorism efforts. That point has been made on many occasions during Questions in this House by noble Lords with expertise and knowledge.

With the loss of front-line officers and with them the loss of the relationships and trust that have built up over decades of community policing teams, Mr Basu asked where that vital intelligence will come from. He said:

“All the work we’ve done over the last 20 years to put neighbourhood policing back on the map ... is in danger of disappearing. For me, that is a national security issue.”

Since 2010, we have lost 21,000 police officers, 18,000 police staff and 6,800 police community officers, in addition to the reduction in the support of a number of armed officers. Last month, the independent Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary reported that policing is under “significant stress”. On occasions, that stress stretches some forces to such an extent that they risk being unable to keep people safe in some very important areas of policing. These things are not independent. What happens here at home, in our Armed Forces and internationally are all interdependent and interrelated. These pressures should concern us all.

The UK and the US intelligence forces this week issued a joint alert on the campaign of hostile cyberactivity by Russian state-sponsored actors. The Minister is nodding at me, so I welcome that he recognises that. Cybersecurity has been the focus of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this week. But questions remain and the Government need to address them to give us the reassurance that we need. What are they doing to review the resources, and increase them if required, for the growing cyber threats? The Intelligence and Security Committee reported concerns over the ability of the intelligence services to recruit and retain critically important technical staff. Without those staff we cannot address the threats that we face. What is being undertaken now to ensure that the services have the personnel they need?

The first duty of any Government is to protect their citizens, but we also need to consider the wider international implications and how we can best fulfil our role in supporting the UN, our European partners and others in providing for international peace and stability.