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.