National Security Situation – <i>Motion to Take Note</i> | Lords debates

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, and the shadow Leader of the House, with both of whom I am in substantial agreement. I go back to the issue of Syria, which was the catalyst for bringing forward this important debate. With the benefit of hindsight, I am able to rehearse a number of propositions perhaps beyond those that have already been discussed that establish the lawfulness of what took place.

First, Assad used chemical weapons on Douma but he had done so before. This was a breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Syria was a signatory in 2013. The Assad regime ignored the warning available in September 2013, although the prospect of action was aborted. The use of chemical weapons is a breach of the law of conflict and humanitarian law. As a signatory to the convention, the United Kingdom has a legitimate interest in its enforcement. Of course, as had already been said, the Security Council, for reasons of Russian policy, has been effectively emasculated.

In the course of Monday’s discussion, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, raised the issue of responsibility to protect. That doctrine was first enunciated by Prime Minister Blair in his Chicago speech; it was refined thereafter, particularly by the Canadian Government. It was successful in Kosovo—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, indicated—and Sierra Leone. Although it may not be universally accepted, in the circumstances we are describing, I believe it can legitimately be described as “persuasive”.

A combination of these circumstances has been extremely unusual. My question, which may not be susceptible to an answer today, is this: what is the position if, in the next six weeks, the Assad regime once again mobilises helicopters and drops barrel bombs filled with high explosive that kill and maim more people and cause more damage than anything that occurred in Douma? If these circumstances arise, they will pose a challenge not only to the Government but to those of us who have supported the action taken by them.

Let me turn to some of the broader issues. This debate is an extremely broad canvas, to put it mildly, and in the time available, I am not sure that I can colour it all in. I must therefore be selective. Looking at the number of noble Lords with experience and qualifications who will follow me, I have no doubt that any omissions I make will be more than made up for by their contributions.

The national security capability review was published on 28 March, on the eve of the recess. It got very little national coverage. Things are usually published on the eve of a recess because they contain bad news. I can give the Government some relief, because it contained no bad news. In fact, it contained not very much at all. When examined, the document is heavy on ambition but light on substance. It tells us a great deal of what we already knew or could have reasonably predicted. The approach of the review has already been criticised by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, of which I have the honour of being a member. That criticism centres on how we can make judgments about the overall issue of national security while the defence component is absent. We know why that is so, but it seems to argue strongly for the view that we will be able best to understand the content and effectiveness of the capability review once defence issues have been properly resolved.

I appreciate that security depends on more than defence—including soft power, intelligence and counter-terrorism—but I would argue that defence is unique because it is the public demonstration of will, capability and deterrence. If all three services are short of personnel, as the review suggests, part of what we are expecting to be told at the end of June by the Secretary of State for Defence must include some effort to deal with those shortages.

But one issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, that causes me considerable concern is the changing nature of the nuclear environment and the weakening, as he said, of arms control. But it is not just Russia. In the United States, the comprehensive test-ban treaty has not yet been ratified. There is considerable doubt whether the Trump Administration will be willing to sign a follow-on strategic arms reduction treaty. As has been pointed out, the Russians have effectively given up on the INF Treaty—that rather improbable product of the meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan. Indeed, it is not just nuclear, because Russia has effectively given up the CFE—the conventional forces in Europe treaty.

But there is one more pernicious doctrine abroad in the whole question of arms control and nuclear weapons. It is called de-escalation, but it is not what it seems. It amounts to reduced nuclear payloads being put on existing missiles, such as those nuclear-capable missiles that have now been deployed in Kaliningrad. It therefore embraces, if not directly at least by inference, the use of nuclear weapons as battlefield weapons—nuclear war fighting. Noble Lords will remember that that was one of the threats of the Cold War. The United States of America hinted that there would be a more general application of the deterrence of nuclear weapons in its own security review. In Russia, military generals have been willing to accept, if I might put it that way, the possibility of the same.

That naturally leads me to the United States. We have not an exclusive relationship but a particular one, just as Macron and Trump have a particular relationship. The features of our relationship are well known: intelligence sharing and access to the Trident missile pool; we are each other’s ally of first choice; a senior partnership in NATO. But we are beholden to an occasionally incoherent and often volatile President. There is not much mention these days of the pivot to the East, which caused so much anxiety in Europe when it was first pronounced by Secretary of State Clinton, but America now sees China as a competitor. The President is embarked on a rather improbable initiative relating to North Korea. It can reasonably be argued that, so far as the United States is concerned, its interests may continue to be focused more often in the East than they are in Europe.

Every President leaves a mark on the presidency. I believe that it is wrong to assume that President Trump’s successor, from either party, will be drawn by or be willing to embrace the Atlanticist tradition. Given the state of politics in United States, it is more likely that such a successor will owe a great deal towards populism. That is why we must do more for ourselves and along with our European allies, whether in NATO or the European Union. PESCO, as noble Lords will know, seeks to improve the effectiveness of the European collective contribution to NATO. The United Kingdom should lead that initiative by the nature of the budget we are prepared to pay for defence. To do so would provide a commitment not just to trade but to the security relationship with the European Union, which has not yet been determined but on which the capability review places great stress. We need more capability for the United Kingdom, Europe and for NATO. If we do that we will allay the issue of burden sharing, which is alive in Washington in the Senate, the House and the White House.

I believe that 2% is not enough for the United Kingdom’s defence budget. That has been so particularly since the cost of the nuclear deterrent became part of the defence budget rather than being separately financed.

Having begun my speech with Syria, perhaps I can finish with Syria. I find myself in the position of being like a sinner who is about to repent but who cannot quite bring himself to do so. The reason why I take this position is that it is now beyond doubt that Assad will win this civil war. It is beyond doubt that he did not and does not need to use chemical weapons. It is beyond doubt that he will continue to enjoy unequivocal support from Russia because of Russia’s anxiety to maintain the influence it has garnered from the vacuum left by what one might describe as the West and because of its bases at Latakia and Tartus, which give it direct access to the Mediterranean. As part of the forward thinking that must surely be provoked by these discussions, Syria is—one might argue—an essential component of our foreign policy in the future. We will have to reshape our policy in relation to Syria and to Assad and we should not shrink from that either.

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Syria – <i>Statement</i> | Lords debates

My Lords, I find it difficult to see how anyone could reach the conclusion that this proportionate and targeted attack was anything other than lawful, although I understand it is the position of some in the other place to continue to doubt that. Having regard to the behaviour of the Assad regime, in particular following what one might call the warning of September 2013, the determination to persist in these unlawful attacks must inevitably provoke response.

However, I believe that the Government made a mistake, if I may put it as delicately as that, in not recalling Parliament—for the sake of 48 hours. If the question of urgency is to be raised in support of the Government’s attitude to that, it is worth pointing out how little urgency President Trump displayed over a period of several days. The United Kingdom was not at imminent risk. It would have been possible to debate these matters without reference to detailed and confidential intelligence and certainly without identifying targets. I do not expect the Leader of the House to agree with me, but I urge upon her that on any future occasion a more positive approach is taken to obtaining the discussion and, if necessary, the approval of both Houses of Parliament.

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Syria – <i>Statement</i> | Lords debates

My Lords, I find it difficult to see how anyone could reach the conclusion that this proportionate and targeted attack was anything other than lawful, although I understand it is the position of some in the other place to continue to doubt that. Having regard to the behaviour of the Assad regime, in particular following what one might call the warning of September 2013, the determination to persist in these unlawful attacks must inevitably provoke response.

However, I believe that the Government made a mistake, if I may put it as delicately as that, in not recalling Parliament—for the sake of 48 hours. If the question of urgency is to be raised in support of the Government’s attitude to that, it is worth pointing out how little urgency President Trump displayed over a period of several days. The United Kingdom was not at imminent risk. It would have been possible to debate these matters without reference to detailed and confidential intelligence and certainly without identifying targets. I do not expect the Leader of the House to agree with me, but I urge upon her that on any future occasion a more positive approach is taken to obtaining the discussion and, if necessary, the approval of both Houses of Parliament.

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Weapons of Mass Destruction | Ministry of Defence | Written Answers

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they plan to enhance the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence capability of the UK in the light of the ongoing enquiries into recent events in Salisbury and the possibility of further similar events within the UK.

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Worboys Case and the Parole Board – <i>Statement</i> | Lords debates

My Lords, may I take the Advocate-General back to the question of legal aid? Had the legal aid scheme provided for assistance in cases of this kind, it would none the less have had to apply the test of reasonable prospects of success, or probable cause. Given that the Secretary of State received advice to the effect that there was no probable cause, that could well have resulted in the victims making an application for legal aid but still being turned down.

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