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Armed Drones

Volume 603: debated on Tuesday 1 December 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the rules of engagement and the use of armed drones.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. In all my time in the House of Commons, this is the first time that I have proposed a motion in Westminster Hall, so I beg your indulgence for any errors of procedure that I make.

The issue before us is hugely topical, particularly given the debate on Syria in the House tomorrow. Armed drones, unmanned aerial vehicles or unmanned combat aerial vehicles have been described by some as just another weapon system—a modern version of the rifle or the missile—and by others as offering unparalleled operational potential, but with associated strategic risks.

In the recently published strategic defence and security review, the Government proposed 20 new Protector armed drones to

“enhance our…global strike capability”,

by which I assume the Government mean inside and outside war zones. That distinction will come up time and again in what I have to say and, I hope, in the Minister’s response.

Reconnaissance drones—I will deal with these for a second without going into the armed element—give troops enormous advantages. They are an unblinking eye in the sky for 24 hours a day, with a very wide angle of view and great precision. They are enormously valuable to special forces and in counter-insurgency operations, let alone in conventional warfare. They are reliable, give real-time intelligence, and are able to replay events quickly so that troops can know what has just happened.

Last week, the all-party parliamentary group on drones and the Royal United Services Institute had a conference on drones, at which we were addressed by probably the greatest warrior of modern times, General Stanley McChrystal, and his English counterpart, Graeme Lamb, both of whom devised and operated the strategy against al-Qaeda in Iraq and destroyed that organisation. In doing so, one of the primary tactics involved using a drone to backtrack any suicide bomb attack on the green zone, signals intelligence to follow up on the origin of it, and special forces to arrest and stop the instigators. That allowed us pretty much completely to eradicate al-Qaeda in Iraq, so it was an incredibly important element of our operation there.

McChrystal talked about the use of drones as a force multiplier. For example, if 20 people were sent in to make an attack, 80 or 100 force protection soldiers were needed. Those are no longer needed because of the reconnaissance sight capability, so drones are an incredibly important weapon system, even just as a reconnaissance system. They are also incredibly precise strike weapons. They are apparently largely riskless, with very little chance of loss of human lives on our side, and have pinpoint-accurate strike capability. The use of drones can therefore provide a never-ending threat inside and outside war zones. I will come back to the difference between the never-ending threats in those two categorisations in a moment.

Drones consist of relatively accessible technologies. As a result, we might take it that proliferation is inevitable. That is one of the strategic risks that I want the Government to consider. Beyond that, there are other genuine concerns. The first was made clear by General McChrystal last week: on one hand, drones lower the threshold for and make it easier to enter into armed conflict, and appear to remove the risk to our personnel and to render warfare almost like a video game; on the other hand, there is an illusion of precision. For those reasons, drones make the propensity to go to war far greater for countries that are worried about, say, their casualties. Most countries will concern themselves about casualties. Casualties are the political price paid for going to war and, as we will see with the Chilcot inquiry shortly, they create a great back pressure against war. As I said, there is an illusion of precision. One forgets that many of the reasons for imprecise targeting are not the drones or the weapon system, but the intelligence on which the targeting is based. Very often there is a precise weapon system, but it is not more precise than the intelligence can make it.

The other point made by General McChrystal that is worth considering is that the use of drones may make accidental conflict more likely. He cited the example of the Turkish air force shooting down a Russian aircraft a week or so ago, and said that had the incursions by the Russians into Turkish airspace been made by drones, they would have been shot down much earlier because the price of the action would have been smaller. That may lead to a lower threshold for an aerial conflict, so there are other ways that the use of drones can reduce the threshold. As such, one of the strategic risks of the use of armed drones is an increased risk of armed conflict.

The second point that came up, which is not really a strategic risk but is a matter of concern, was the effects on drone pilots. There was a great deal of concern about the fact that drone pilots, as it were, go home to their families each night with no time to decompress after effectively being in the war zone all day. They witness the violence, whereas most people who are involved in a war are distanced, at least to some extent, from the people who suffer from their weapon system. The sheer fidelity of the drone systems makes the witnessing very close and personal, in some senses. The sheer number of kills that some armed drone squadrons achieve increases the stress. One squadron was attributed with 1,626 kills, which is far more than any normal aircraft squadron would carry out. There is a long-distance version of post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, one other element worried me even more than that. It comes back to the legalities, to which I will return in a minute in putting a question to the Minister. If we undertake drone attacks outside a defined war zone, the location from which those attacks are operated may become part of a war zone, and we may legitimise a counter-attack on that area. Since many of those places are in rear areas, that has real issues for the operation of our RAF bases, such as RAF Waddington.

The big strategic risk that was raised by a number of people, particularly McChrystal, at the RUSI conference was the damaging impact on hearts and minds in battle. For those suffering drone attacks, there is an inability to strike back, a fear of constant danger, and a never-ending threat that is always there. There is strong evidence that this syndrome radicalises and militarises civilians, and unites militants. Drones can act as a recruiting sergeant. The most obvious example is the American drone operation in Pakistan, which, although it has taken out a lot of Taliban leaders, has also acted to recruit a number of others to their cause. Again, I suspect that will manifest itself in the battle against ISIL, because such organisations recruit worldwide. Last year, ISIL’s estimated recruitment was 30,000, having climbed from 15,000 during the course of the American attacks in Syria. That is an incredibly serious element of the strategic risk of using drones. From that point of view, drones are perhaps the biggest risk that we undertake.

Was there any discussion at the conference of how soon it will be before terrorist organisations are able to organise attacks using drone technology, or at least a modified version of it?

No, not particularly. There was a reference to it, but it was a throwaway line, and I cannot tell you the originator of the reference because of Chatham House rules. As I said earlier, plainly the nature of the technology involved in drones is awfully straightforward: the aerodynamics are straightforward; the motive power is straightforward; and the guidance systems are straightforward. Of course, lots of commercial drones are now available. Making an attack drone would take more than that, but it is pretty straightforward to achieve almost every element of building a drone—perhaps not a terribly sophisticated Predator or Reaper drone, or whatever, but a drone that might be used for a single-shot attack, or that could get to a location that is otherwise well protected against terrorist attack. It is absolutely clear that, if that is not possible now, it will be possible in the extremely close future. Drones are an element of proliferation that I suspect is already out of the bag. There is not much that we can do about it except plan our defences against drone attacks. That is too big a story for this debate, but the hon. Gentleman makes a good point.

I now come to the nub of this debate. The legal framework we create for drones has implications for strategic risk, for the way drones are used, and for whether their use acts as a recruiting sergeant. All the elements that I have talked about can be affected by the legal framework, which needs clarity to maintain the UK’s international standing and to protect the pilots and the armed forces from prosecution. It is not fair to ask our soldiers to carry out tasks without absolute legal certainty. Most of us do not know the exact background of some of the recent drone strikes—I am sure the Minister knows, but I do not. After the Khan strike, a headline in The Sunday Times stated “Army chief demanded legal cover for killing”. The article claimed that the director of special forces asked for specific legal advice on the strike. I do not know whether that is true, but it highlights one of the issues for me, which is that when we are going into a controversial military technology, we must absolutely ensure that the officers who use it are properly protected and clearly understand the limits of its use and where they might cross the rules of war, international law and so on. That is one of the major drivers of my argument.

When Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin were targeted in Syria by a UK drone on 21 August 2015, the Government claimed:

“This airstrike was a necessary and proportionate exercise of the individual right of self-defence of the United Kingdom.”

The Government also said that there was “clear evidence” that these individuals were planning and directing armed attacks against the United Kingdom. There was a lot of debate about that at the time, and there were questions about how imminent the attack might be, and how it was possible for there to be an imminent attack when these individuals were in Syria and the attack was cited as being in the UK. Some of the events that were cited happened in advance of the air strike, so it is not obvious how they could have been prevented by it. There was a series of arguments, but the basic argument was imminent self-defence.

In a letter to the United Nations, the Government cited the collective self-defence of Iraq as the second argument for the strike. I am not a lawyer, but it seems self-evident that this is a little like someone turning up in court to face an assault charge and saying, “I wasn’t there, but if I was there, he started it.” One argument undermines the other. The presentation of two arguments to the United Nations weakens, rather than enhances, the claim. I do not know why that was done, but again it highlights why we need absolute clarity on such matters. This is not an area in which we can risk having doubt—in the interests of our officers, let alone in the interest of our national reputation—about whether we have done the right thing.

As it stands, an armed attack must already have been launched, or at least be imminent, in order for states to resort to force in individual or collective self-defence; that is one element. Action against past attacks, if not done during the course of a war, risks being categorised as reprisal, which is unlawful in peacetime. Action against future attacks, which might be considered pre-emptive or preventive, is also considered unlawful. There is quite a narrow gap for strikes, which must be necessary and proportionate.

The concern raised by the Khan attack, and indeed by the subsequent attack by the Americans, relates to what we might call “targeted killing”—some have used the phrase “extrajudicial killing.” The concern, which again was raised by General McChrystal, among others, was that that could be seen as an easier alternative to arrest or prosecution when dealing with terrorists. We had that argument in Northern Ireland 30 years ago, when we were accused of hard arrests, as it were. We do not want to revisit that argument, because it was pretty unedifying at the time. If we give in to temptation and such strikes happen, it may be morally right in the case of the individuals concerned, but it would be legally dubious. At the very least, it would amount to a significant change in the Government’s stance on what is legal and what is not, and it therefore requires careful consideration.

Those concerns are amplified by the recent change in the ministerial code relating to international law. I happen not to think that the change has any legal standing but, from a political point of view, it raises concerns that, again, could be used against us by our opponents. I have argued time and again that one of our strongest counter-terrorism weapons is the fact that we abide by a high moral standard. If we do not abide by a high moral standard, we lose one battle to our opponents straightaway.

I am driving towards the relationship between the rules of engagement and the legalities I have just mentioned. This is my direct question to the Minister; I understand that she may not be able to answer it today, but hopefully she will be able to indicate where she is going towards on this question. If the rules of engagement are properly drawn up, they must be within the law, within declared Government policy and within any parliamentary limits that have been set. The Syria debate will address the limits set by Parliament, but action must fit within all three areas. I would normally assume that to be the case but, after our conference last week, I got a memo from somebody who does not want to be identified, so forgive me if I do not identify him. The memo encapsulates the problem about which I am worrying:

“Following the conference last week, I came away with the distinct impression that the MoD is using a different lexicon to the APPG and academe resulting in us talking at cross purposes. Where the APPG and Human Rights Select Committee…are talking about war zones and so forth the MoD have very carefully couched their wording in terms of RoE and operational areas.

Typically RoE have an opening preamble covering the legitimacy of the operation involved…The wording for this will be sanctioned by the MoD legal advisers and endorsed by the law officers’ staff. The RoE then set out the area of operations and it was clear to me from the comments at the conference that this area included parts of Syria—hence everything being done (including 21 Aug) was within the RoE. Typically the MoD and lower formations take the law officers’ confirmation of legitimacy as gospel. They also then seek to make the rules as flexible as possible to allow commanders the greatest possible latitude.”

Essentially, he is saying that the MOD is using a set of language to explain the rules of engagement and the area of operation that is not the same as the law officers’ definition of what is and is not a war zone and the like. That seems important.

The relationship between the rules of engagement, international and national law and policy is the point where the rubber meets the road. One can expect soldiers and airmen to operate on the basis of the rules of engagement only, and nothing else. We must be very clear in this area.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has begun an inquiry on the legality of the drones policy. There are three pages of questions—I will not read them out—that crystallise the inquiry. They are all good questions, but I finish on the point that drones are not just another weapons system; they are an incredibly effective weapons system subject to legal and technical proliferation, and to change in the behaviour patterns of both politicians and senior commanders. There is a great risk of acting in a way that is tactically incredibly successful but strategically dangerous. It seems to me that we need a clear and unambiguous legal policy, in the interests of our soldiers, our citizens and our allies.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am pleased that the Backbench Business Committee agreed that this was an important debate to have, and I thank them for that. I also thank the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for his contribution. He made highly relevant and pertinent points, some of which I might repeat. I make no apology for that, because we are discussing a serious matter. I also hope to consider the use of drones from the human perspective, including that of our service personnel.

I echo the sentiments of the right hon. Gentleman, who raised significant concerns about the operational parameters, thresholds and legal framework for the use of drones. Like him, I note the killing of UK citizens by British drones in Raqqa earlier this year. The UK Government have a clear desire at the moment to engage in a campaign of air strikes, which reinforces the importance of having debates such as this fully at the appropriate time. We need proper and clearly understood parameters and a legal basis for any military action that we take. Those parameters are most appropriately discussed and agreed before and not after we ask our service personnel to undertake action.

It is vital that we take the time in this debate to consider and assess the use of armed and unarmed drones and the legal and structural frameworks within which they are used. Because we are responsible for their use, we must also consider the impact upon the people against whom such weapons are used and understand that sometimes they are not the desired or intended target. We must also consider the impact on those whose job involves operating drones.

Clearly, technology is moving fast. Not only are military drones available to our armed forces and those of other nations, but the technology is becoming more accessible and advanced all the time. I understand that companies such as DHL and Amazon are beginning to research the deployment of commercial delivery drones for business purposes. We must assume that such technology will be available not only to our friends but, as the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) noted, to those who wish us ill. We must consider that. I know that technology to counter such a situation is under development too.

We must consider those whom we ask to operate drones. It is our duty to look after military personnel operating within a conflict zone; that is equally relevant whether crews are miles away or have not moved from their desks during their deployment because they are engaging in the conflict by operating a drone. Clearly, a key decision-making factor will be the fact that the use of drones does not directly endanger our service personnel, which is important. The ability to control drones remotely means that our personnel can operate effectively out of harm’s way, and we must see the positive in that. However, Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK strikes a cautionary note:

“Drones swing the balance away from engaging in the often difficult and long-term work of solving the root causes of conflicts through diplomatic and political means, towards a quick, short-term ‘fix’ of ‘taking out the bad guys’.”

However, it may not be the bad guys who end up on the receiving end of drone strikes, which is surely a cause for concern and another reason to consider legality. Studies on US targets have revealed a number of flaws in how targets are identified, including during a number of strikes resulting from electronic communications that officials subsequently acknowledged as unreliable.

David Cortright, the policy director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, also raises ethical questions about drone use as a means of combating terrorism. He cautions that after 10 years of combat in Afghanistan and given the current high levels of threat from terrorist attacks, of which we are all aware, we ought to know better. We may need to consider that point. Additionally, former Pentagon adviser David Kilcullen has testified that drone strikes arouse anger, which coalesces populations around extremists. As we have heard, recent terrorist attacks in Pakistan are seen as a direct response to drone attacks. Reports from the federally administered tribal areas in Pakistan suggest that it is a matter of honour under the tribal code for the families of drone attack victims to seek revenge. The US drone programme, operating largely in declared war zones, counts nearly 90% of people killed in recent drone strikes in Afghanistan as not the intended targets of those attacks.

From a legal perspective, such statistics and reports cause concern. Yasmine Ahmed, director of Rights Watch UK, told the Joint Committee on Human Rights that clarity is required about the framework on which the UK Government rely in their use of targeted drone strikes, and I agree. Although the UK Attorney General suggested in September this year that UK Government actions on targeted drone killings complied with humanitarian law, serious questions still remain, including on the definition of a combatant and the assessment of those killings as militarily necessary.

In 2010, Sir Gus O’Donnell presented the parliamentary convention on when the UK Government are expected to provide Parliament with the opportunity to debate decisions to use military force. Except in an emergency, approval in advance is required. It is therefore concerning that the unprecedented use of a drone strike to kill a UK citizen in Syria outside the context of war was not notified to Parliament in advance. The facts of the incident have not yet emerged into the public domain, leaving the parameters within which the Government are working unclear to us.

The use of drones must also be considered in relation to those whom we deploy to operate them. I am pleased that we have discussed mental health provision for service personnel in this House recently; the issue deserves scrutiny, understanding and resource. In such discussions, it is imperative that we also fully consider the impact on mental health of being a drone operator.

In 2013, the US Armed Forces Health Surveillance Centre published a report noting that operators of unmanned drones can suffer the same psychological problems as operators of manned drones and similar problems to aircrew. In addition, it said that the negative psychological impacts do not present themselves only as post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of the level of emotional distance between operators and the reality of the human targets that they are pursuing, there are concerns that it might remove the human aspect of their work.

Last month, The Guardian published an article in which a number of former air force drone operators and technicians had come to the paper to discuss their opposition to the ongoing reliance on unmanned drones. One ex-operator described his experience this way:

“Ever step on ants and never give it another thought? That’s what you are made to think of the targets—as just black blobs on a screen. You start to do these psychological gymnastics to make it easier to do what you have to do—they deserved it, they chose their side. You had to kill part of your conscience to keep doing your job every day—and ignore those voices telling you this wasn’t right.”

Questions have been raised about the psychological effects of the very real distance between operator and target, which has sometimes been described as encouraging a PlayStation mentality amongst drone operators. That is a danger in having to remotely control the aircraft separately from the events on screen, as operators can disconnect from the reality of their control over the drones. The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions raised the concept of a videogame mentality in a 2010 report to the UN Human Rights Council.

Recently, the BBC also highlighted the impact of the job upon the mental wellbeing of drone operators. It reported on the RAF’s 13 Squadron, which operates drones from an aircraft hangar in Lincolnshire. The operators there, who are all qualified and experienced military pilots, work in shifts, controlling aircraft thousands of miles away. The preparation and processes that they undergo are exactly the same as those required for flying a conventional aircraft, and once the door to the workspace is closed the pilots report that it puts them psychologically in that airspace, with all the emotions and thought processes being exactly the same as on manned planes.

One RAF crew member is reported as saying that the potential for psychological and emotional impact on drone operators was

“far greater than it ever was with a manned cockpit”.

He explained that the impressive resolution of drones such as Reaper means that operators know exactly what is on the other end of their crosshairs, and that this immediacy of targeting is also magnified by the fact that the drone crews are “airborne” for hours and hours. Also, unlike conventional crews, they do not have four-month tours but a year-round job, with a proportionately greater risk of suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

Similar issues are being reported in the USA, with concerns regarding the psychological impact of drone crew experience, and difficulties with crew retention and recruitment. These difficulties are becoming a significant issue, with drone crew members keen to transfer to conventional crews, and consideration now being given to financial incentives to persuade pilots to remain on drone crews, where numbers are becoming critical because three times more pilots are aiming to leave drone crews than conventional crews. Studies have also indicated a concern about psychological numbing, which is attributed to crew seeing the very clear, direct video feed.

The hon. Lady is very eloquently laying out one of the major areas of concern about the use of this weapons system. Does she think that if the drone operators know unequivocally that what they are doing is legal, it would make their job easier and their chance of suffering stress lower?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention; he makes a very important point. If we expect our service personnel to go into any conflict situation, whether they are in a conventional aircraft or operating a drone, it is our responsibility to make sure that there is a legal basis for that action.

There is an ethical dilemma when drone operators are faced with their targets. In the USA, it is being considered whether it might be better to replace the images that crew members see with modified interfaces. It is possible to do that, but of course the concern then arises that it would potentially introduce an unethical level of emotional distance, which could lead to a lack of recognition of those affected by strikes as people, dehumanising them. I note that the right hon. Gentleman had heard General McChrystal express similar concerns.

That disconnect has also been reported as causing operators challenges in coming to terms with the effects of their actions on both combatants and civilians, and their working environment can contribute to that. After their shift, operators head home in their cars, thousands of miles from the results of their day’s work and—crucially—remote from the opportunity to assimilate their experiences with those of colleagues, as would be the case in a more conventional setting.

Looking to the future, it was recently disclosed that the United States military are using civilian operators to fly drones that are tracking suspected militants and other targets across the globe. This is part of a privatisation of job roles that were previously exclusively undertaken by military personnel. The Los Angeles Times reports that civilian pilots operate combat air patrols that daily fly through areas where military operations are taking place. These civilian operators provide video and collect sensitive information for the United States air force. Although they are not permitted to pinpoint targets or fire missiles at them, they are clearly operating military drones, which is prompting questions, because they are now part of what the USAF refers to as the “kill chain”, which starts with surveillance and ends with the launching of missiles.

That is not the situation that we are faced with now in the UK, but we are faced with a situation in which the thresholds of operation—the legalities and the parameters— are unclear. It is also a situation where, notwithstanding the potential for use of drones, unintended consequences reign supreme. For these reasons, I call upon the Government to debate this issue further, and I would be delighted to hear further information from the Minister about the points that I have made.

Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespersons at 10.30 am. There are 25 minutes left for other speakers, so I hope you can do the arithmetic yourself.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for securing the debate. As ever, he made a thoughtful and insightful contribution. He is also a man of boundless optimism—after all, he suggested that we would hear from the Chilcot inquiry “shortly”.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have undoubtedly proved devastatingly effective. Militarily, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, their use has assisted in expelling al-Qaeda from large tracts of Pakistan—albeit not without some cost, and I agree precisely with what he and General McChrystal had to say—and from Yemen. Politically, drones have allowed the US in particular to pursue strategic objectives without needing to put boots on the ground in an era when, as we all know, there is very little appetite among western electorates for their countries to engage in further overseas military adventures.

Without doubt, the development of drone technology will continue apace in the years ahead. Drones will assuredly be an essential part of the furniture of international warfare and, as a consequence, their use will require a thorough overhaul of international law and regulation. That overhaul is still to come.

In the euphoria that surrounds the decisive deployment of drones to eliminate terrorist leaders from afar, it is also worth reflecting—as the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) did earlier—that before the world is too much older our enemies will also enjoy access to this technology, with potentially calamitous effect. Terrorists and even criminal extortion gangs will soon be able to operate hardware of this sort, the cost and capability of which is rapidly coming within their range.

The use of drones by the UK military was first avowed as recently as September, when the Prime Minister announced the extrajudicial killings of two UK citizens, Reyaad Khan and Junaid Hussain, who had joined ISIL in Syria and featured prominently in a propaganda video that promoted and encouraged terrorist attacks on UK soil. Of course, the UK Government wished to place those deaths on the record lest details seeped out via a freedom of information inquiry, as happened in July regarding joint US-UK air strikes over Syrian airspace. Moreover, the US policy of routine avowal of fatal drone attacks created the risk that eagle-eyed observers might notice that the two operations resulting in the deaths of Khan and Hussain had not been similarly gazetted. It is better to take the initiative rather than allow lurid conclusions to be drawn. In November, Mohammed Emwazi—alias “Jihadi John”—was similarly dispatched in co-operation with the US military.

For as long as such ISIL-supporting British terrorists were at large on Syrian soil, it would evidently have been impossible to bring them to trial. To be fair, there is a distinction between the situation today and that in Ulster some 40 years ago. Of course there were ungoverned spaces in parts of Londonderry and Belfast, but there are massive tracts within Syria that make it impossible to bring people to trial. None the less, their terrorist activity was designed to cause mayhem on UK soil. We are de facto at war with the so-called Islamic State, and as a consequence Khan and Hussain might properly be regarded as combatants. However, the strong inclination in the post-Iraq war era to provide watertight legal cover for all military operations led, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden said, to the drone raid being classed as “self-defence” under article 51 of the UN charter.

That has opened up a series of contentious issues. For example, were the primary subjects of the drone attack “directing an attack”, and was such an attack “imminent”? As a consequence, our intelligence agencies will need to show after each drone strike that they have carefully considered the operation of article 51, unless we have the change in law that I will come on to. We need to keep the terms of such drone operations under regular, if not constant, review.

My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. One of the difficulties with such a legal basis is the requirement of imminence, which gives us an evidential problem. Presumably there was some sort of terrorist cell in this country that was about to carry out a terrorist action, and the Government have failed or refused to answer questions about whether there have been any arrests in the follow-up to that strike. That gives us a problem. The Government may have good reason for not giving us the information, but when drone strikes are carried out they will have to be ready to provide an evidential chain of some sort to show that what they did was correct.

I very much agree with my right hon. Friend’s comments. It seems to me that we need to keep the terms of drone use under regular, if not constant, review, and that before seeking ministerial authorisation the intelligence agencies would have needed to conclude that the individuals posed an imminent and clear threat to national security. It is also essential that our security services satisfy themselves that a drone strike, rather than any attempt at apprehension, is both necessary and proportionate. The issue of collateral damage—the impact of a strike upon innocent civilians in the vicinity—has been incredibly controversial, especially in Pakistan and Yemen, where it has often been recognised that US strikes have necessitated discreet co-operation with host Governments.

In truth, the increasingly sophisticated monitoring of mobile phones, other telephony and emails has enhanced the ability to target suspects with virtually pinpoint accuracy—it was notable that the only other fatalities in the two UK strikes this summer were associates. That is a good thing; we should try as far as possible to minimise collateral damage.

Nevertheless, I agree with other contributors to the debate that there is now an urgent, and possibly unanswerable, case for updated legislation to govern the use of—not to mention the continued reliance upon—new drone technology. That would allow the Prime Minister and the Government of the day to act with the timing and precision required to wage effective operations, without first having to consider how to navigate the complex labyrinth of precedent, law and parliamentary approval that currently blunts us. The US War Powers Act goes some way to providing a template in that regard, bestowing on the Executive branch the ability to give the green light to action without congressional approval, while maintaining a series of vital checks, safeguards and balances.

It is worth recalling that US legal justification in relation to the use of drones on overseas targets has historically been markedly less strenuous. That has arguably caused difficulties in the ungoverned parts of the world where “Five Eyes” co-operation is often strongest—Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and, more recently, parts of Syria. The UK security services’ knowledge that intelligence passed to their US counterparts is used to launch drone strikes without, for example, any clear imminent threat to national security, potentially places the UK military, and our own workers, in a legal quagmire.

Although a common protocol among western allies would be ideal, that would necessitate an open political debate about the desirability of adopting the hit list approach that the US military have for selecting drone targets. For the Obama Administration, that approach has essentially involved a rolling update of named individuals, with the list being refreshed whenever there is a successful drone attack involving the assassination of terrorist targets. Needless to say, such an approach is far removed from the necessity for the prior legal approval of each and every step under British law as it currently stands.

Thank you, Mr Stringer, for allowing me to speak for rather longer than my requisite minutes, but I did take some interventions. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response to the debate, and to her recognising that we need new legislation and some genuine thought about the matter, not just in the context of what is happening in Syria but, I suspect, for many years to come.

I broadly agree with all the contributions made so far, by Members on both sides of the House. My interest in the matter was sparked when the Prime Minister announced to the House that drones had been used by the UK in Syria to kill Reyaad Khan—a UK citizen, albeit one who had been radicalised and had chosen to go and fight for ISIL/Daesh in Syria. I realised that I had met the young man many years previously, during a discussion about politics with a group of young people at a youth forum in my constituency. At that time, he was an engaging young man who was interested in politics, and whose political views seemed perfectly normal. When he was a teenager, there was no sign that he would end up being radicalised, choose to go to Syria and join ISIL/Daesh, and come to the end that he did, perhaps inevitably. It provides food for thought when a constituent one happens to have met ends up meeting such a fate.

I will not go into too much detail, because that is not necessarily within the wishes of Reyaad Khan’s family, but I should make it clear that the radicalisation horrified his parents. Many months before the outcome that eventually befell Reyaad Khan, I had written to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ask, at the family’s request—his parents thought he was in Turkey, perhaps on his way to Syria—for any assistance the FCO could possibly provide, through our consular services in Turkey, in finding a reason to intercept the young man and return him to the UK. I want to make it absolutely clear that the family, who were desperately concerned, were making efforts to prevent the young man from travelling to Syria. That is a tale for us all; as Members of Parliament, we need to be aware of what can happen to our constituents.

Our sympathy should, of course, principally be with the victims of ISIL/Daesh, but extremely difficult and concerning questions of ethics and legality are raised when the UK Government use a remote drone to kill a UK citizen in a country with which, technically, the UK is not at war, even if that citizen has participated in actions carried out by a non-state actor, such as ISIL/Daesh, that undoubtedly presents a direct threat to the UK’s security. Many of the legal issues have already been mentioned, and because of the time I will not go into any great detail. I am not naive enough, however, to believe that the justification used by the Government, and cited by the Prime Minister in the Chamber of the House of Commons, tells us the full story about what legal advice has been given to the Government, and what the justification for the targeting of Reyaad Khan and others has been.

I know that the Minister will not be able to respond to this—I have put it directly to Ministers before—but I have to put on the record that in my view there is in the Ministry of Defence a list of names of UK citizens for whom there is, in effect, a pre-authorisation in place. There would have to be a final signing off, but if those individuals became available to be targeted, they could be targeted. That does call into question, under article 51 of the United Nations charter, the justification on the basis of the imminence of attacks.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which impinges on the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field). One of the most worrying things for me about American policy is the idea that the President approves a kill list every Thursday morning, or whenever it is. That is the kind of area in which I do not think we want to go in the direction of the Americans. Politicians should not have the right to strike someone from the face of the earth, no matter what the logic. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

I will just make a little progress. That is why it is so important that we have this debate, and why the Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry is so important. I understand that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who is not here today, has written to the Secretary of State for Defence expressing her concern about the Ministry’s lack of co-operation with that inquiry. Will the Minister, in her response, confirm that the Committee will get the Ministry’s full co-operation, obviously within the parameters of what it can say on this matter?

I will, briefly, but I am conscious of time. If the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) will forgive me, I probably will not give way a further time.

If article 51, which states that there has to be an imminent threat, is to mean anything, the security services—and, indeed, Ministers who are considering the issue—need to be in a position to update such a list constantly. The notion that an individual is on a list until such time as they are eliminated or assassinated seems to be at odds with article 51. There needs to be a process whereby the question of whether a person is still an imminent threat to the UK is regularly turned over in people’s minds.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I will be interested to see whether the Minister illuminates that issue further in her response to the debate.

I want to raise one other issue, which is whether there should be an inquest into the death of Reyaad Khan. The case, it is fair to say, is fairly unique, but it has possibly led to similar cases. To some extent, an inquest might help establish some of the legal parameters in such cases. I have received representations on this—not from constituents, but from others. As I understand it, section 9 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 effectively grants global jurisdiction in respect of the potential unlawful killing of a British citizen. There is no question but that the issue of legality has been raised, and is under debate; we would not be here today if there was not a question mark about the legality. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government have a view on whether an inquest would be appropriate, if it is correct that the 1861 Act has global jurisdiction, and that the action that led to the death of this British citizen, albeit one who was acting in such a way as to be an enemy of the UK, was physically initiated in the UK, although the weapon used to carry it out was physically located elsewhere? Given the time constraints, I will not go on much longer, but I am interested to hear her response.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for bringing the issue to the House and for putting a clear analysis on the record. Drones have become an increasingly integral part of defence, and their capabilities have gone far beyond surveillance. We have the ability to use drones for combat purposes, which is what the debate is all about. We have concerns about drones being indiscriminate, and worries about whether we can be specific in our targeting using such automated systems. However, while military systems have an increasing range of automated functions, no fully autonomous systems are in use. The operation of a drone still needs human input, so it is fair to say that there is still a large enough degree of control. There is no reason why drones should be more indiscriminate than air strikes, boots on the ground or any other method of combat. Humans control drones and work within the rules.

When it comes to surveillance, there is no doubt that drones have revolutionised our ability effectively to gather intelligence across all corners of the globe. We have already seen drones take out incredibly dangerous individuals and gather the intelligence required for forces to go in at ground level and take targets out. Clearly there have been positives resulting from drone use, but that does not mean we should not be mindful of the concerns about their use expressed by some Members. We can do more to address such concerns by taking formal steps better to educate stakeholders and the public as to what drones actually are. Contrary to popular belief, they are not indiscriminate, pilotless killing machines, but state-of-the-art, precise and remotely piloted military systems, controlled by highly professional, highly trained individuals. Decisions about how a drone behaves when on an operation are made by pilots, analysts and a whole team in real time, just like the crew of a traditional aircraft. All UK drone pilots have to follow the law of armed conflict and the rules of engagement in exactly the same manner as pilots of traditional manned aircraft.

The decision-making process leading to the identification and engagement of targets is identical to that for conventionally manned aircraft. More than that, as our drone pilots have greater access to information, through a combination of the aircraft’s on-board sensors and the ability to access off-board information, they are the best informed and least pressurised of all our aircrew who have to make critical decisions about when to strike.

In the real world, drones’ capabilities save the lives of our personnel, allies and civilians daily. The vast majority of civilian casualties in the middle east are caused by insurgents, terrorists and truly indiscriminate murderers. It is our remotely piloted aircraft that the terrorists fear most. They know just as well as we do that these systems contribute massively to our identifying them and their weapons.

In the time remaining, which I wish to share with the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), I want to get to the facts. As of January 2014, Reaper has flown for more than 54,000 hours over Afghanistan. In that time, it has fired just 459 precision weapons. The sophistication of the weapons means that they can change course after release if innocent civilians stray into a strike area. That is one example of the many safeguards in place. We need to be able to harness that effectiveness in future conflicts, including those currently spiralling out of control in the middle east.

We know of one highly regrettable incident in which civilians were killed by a weapon deployed from a UK Reaper. Of course that is one incident too many, but in that case, a strike on two trucks carrying insurgent explosives resulted in four civilian casualties, in addition to the death of the insurgents.

This exceptionally useful tool contributes greatly toward protecting and defending UK forces and civilians. The Government’s use of unmanned and remotely piloted aircraft means that we have to safeguard information relating to our targeting and intelligence capabilities, and that applies across the board. The debate has given us an opportunity to provide the public with more information about drones and how, in reality, they are far from indiscriminate killing machines; rather, they are important and life-saving assets.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on securing this important debate; I supported him in doing so at the Backbench Business Committee. He set out a number of concerns, which I hope the Minister will address, not least of which is the question of why Parliament was told that the reliance was on self-defence of the UK, when the message to the UN relied on collective self-defence of Iraq. People might say that that is an arguable or pedantic point, but the fundamental principle matters; it should matter to us in Parliament, and those of us with any concern for international law and the standing of the UN.

Members have touched on a number of issues. Some suggested that we should not relate the issue too much to the experience in Northern Ireland, but when we consider some of the decisions made in the formative years of the involvement in Northern Ireland of the British Army and the intelligence services in the early ’70s, and what then became normative, questions do arise for us. We cannot just casually accept, whenever we ask questions about this matter, people saying either “Don’t ask” or “Don’t expect a full answer.” The real answer is, “We know, and it is okay.” Many hon. Members accepted that sort of line down the years when we raised questions about the nature of operations in Northern Ireland; and many of them then declared themselves shocked when they read in the de Silva report that something close to a kill list was operated in Northern Ireland, and that Parliament was being misled. It is still not clear whether Ministers were misled or were part of the misleading. That experience of sleepwalking through the formative stages of a new situation or operational vista, and of other standards becoming normalised, means that we need to ask questions at parliamentary level.

We should also remember that the Prime Minister told us about this extrajudicial killing in the context of a wider statement about Syria and refugees. It is not clear whether we would have had a statement just on the killing. That sad statement came at the end of a recess, and it is not clear what the standard would be in future. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said that the standards to be followed and the decision-making processes are identical to those for manual aircraft, but I do not think that, in parliamentary terms, we do know that. He may have been briefed to that effect, but we have not been told that. Many of us have asked questions, including on the all-party group on drones, and have not received full information. Let us remember that manual aircraft would not have been sent in to kill Reyaad Khan, so we are not talking about like-for-like at all.

The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) raised the question, as did the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, of the protection of operators and of knowing exactly where they stand in the system. There is not clarity on any of those issues. If the hon. Member for Strangford is so confident of the answers, he should join us in calling for a much fuller clarification of the policy and practices, so that when we have a system, moving forward, it is not determined by default and drift, but by real deliberation, real design and proper delineation of standards, principles and procedures.

Before I call the Front-Bench spokespeople, I hope to be able to give the proposer two or three minutes to respond to the debate.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, in this timely and critical debate on the rules of engagement and use of armed drones. I am sure all Members here will agree that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and members of the all-party group on drones have ensured an in-depth and robust debate on matters of ethics, morality and fundamentally political choice.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden and others who have participated in the debate have made a convincing case for further debate, scrutiny and holding the Government to account for the political choices they make in deciding the role of the state in surveillance and in ending lives, especially the lives of UK citizens living in other countries. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) about future drone use and, as mentioned by others, their use by extremists and criminals. That needs to be looked at in depth to perhaps inform future policy.

As has been outlined, for some Members, the present lack of information relating to the rules of engagement leaves much to be desired, and for many it highlights our inability to comply with international human rights law—critically, particularly with regard to seeking to understand whether the European convention on human rights applies when physical power and control is exercised over a person via an automated vehicle controlled by a UK citizen. This is exacerbated, as was mentioned, by the Secretary of State’s lack of response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights. If the Secretary of State were able to attend the Committee, we could perhaps get a resolution and some clarity. I am sure that the Minister will wish to address that when she responds.

The efficiency of the present systems is an important issue. In some cases in the past decade in Afghanistan, drones did not hit their target. Given the increase in the use of drones in Afghanistan under the leadership of President Obama, this must surely throw into doubt their efficiency, and the ability of Government policy to limit the power of extremists at home and abroad, both now and in future. The Government’s present approach could arouse feelings of anger and lead to local populations coalescing around extremists, rather than removing them from the overall picture.

Fundamentally, this physical disengagement—the move from traditional warfare in the field, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire, to being based in a bunker thousands of miles away—is a Pandora’s box that has been opened and will not be shut. If in the weeks and days ahead we find ourselves involved in an aerial bombardment over Syria, the use of drones, not only in surveillance but in the delivery of hardware, will be a military choice, not a political one.

The need for at least a statement or summary on the legal use of drones and supporting rules of engagement need to be published, as well as a definition of areas of operation. Now more than ever, my constituents—I am sure that I speak for my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire, too—seek a detailed policy and operational guidelines. We accept that those guidelines should recognise the security implications for our armed forces.

In addition, we hope that the Government will clarify the use of civilian operators and their possible role in delivering ordnance to the end point—that is, in using the firing button—in present and future operations. We also hope that mental health will be considered. In a recent Adjournment debate, we discussed mental health and the impact on veterans, military personnel and their children.

The Government must clarify our limitations. In which countries do we use drones? Will we become another United States, targeting countries such as Pakistan? If we do, we must consider the ramifications for some of our partners—including, critically, the Commonwealth family—and their relationship with the UK. Holding the Government to account requires us to have the ability to ensure that evidence is challenged and proven, and that includes the ability to prove the effectiveness of drones in military use.

I have a feeling that no matter the number of deaths, civilian or otherwise, the use of drones will continue and increase. In the light of that, will the Government consider that recent research has revealed that over the past 10 years, 61% of CIA air strikes have hit domestic buildings?

It is crucial that drone strikes are made with the utmost accuracy if they are to take place, and civilian casualties must be avoided. Is my hon. Friend aware of cases such as that of Fahd al-Quso, who was killed apparently in Yemen and Pakistan? Similarly, there are others who have been targeted by the United States who have apparently been killed several times. What assessment does my hon. Friend make of that in relation to accuracy and reporting?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. Her point recognises the limitations on intelligence. I will cover that in a moment.

An estimated 222 civilians have been killed in United States strikes, including the American and Italian hostages killed in recent drone strikes in compounds. The use of drones without robust and accountable rules of engagement removes not one additional extremist or terrorist, but acts as a recruiting sergeant for the most heinous of blood cults. The present policy of power to kill anyone anywhere in the world without oversight or safeguards is a failed strategy that perpetuates the illusion that military force is effective in combating extremists.

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that, as I suggested, part of the issue is that in Pakistan and Yemen there is co-operation between whatever authorities there are—I would not say there is a functioning Government in either of those countries—and the US military? That is part of the problem. Drones are a recruiting sergeant because of the anger in what is essentially a collection of civil wars with a lot of militias in place.

Strangely, I would not disagree or agree. We are seeing the continued emergence of extremists. The recent dreadful attacks in Paris and Beirut show the exacerbated position that we find ourselves in.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire said, our mistake could be in believing that electronic communication or signals intelligence is infallible. We know from experience that this is not the reality we wish it to be. This was mentioned in detail by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden. Our ability to scrutinise and inform the policies that improve intelligence should be welcomed—I hope the Minister will welcome that—as it seeks to improve conditions for armed forces and civilian staff who are at the coalface of engagement.

Finally, the future development of this technology will challenge our military planning and, critically, our own use of drones, especially the development of autonomous drones. Although there is a policy not to develop that technology, I urge the Government to agree to the UN resolution for a moratorium on the development of such technology until we better understand the ramifications on our society.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on securing this debate. We have had contributions from the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Foyle (Mark Durkan), and for West Dunbartonshire (Martin John Docherty).

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden explained the use of UAVs. We must recognise that they are a new technology in a long list. The history of development goes back to Zeppelins and other types of weapons. He highlighted the issue of how UAVs are used. In my experience, for the majority of the time, they are a valuable tool in surveillance and intelligence gathering. However, as he rightly says, in some cases they have a capacity to deliver weapons to a target. He highlighted the issue of Baghdad, the defeat of al-Qaeda and the use of UAVs in operations, but he then made a very important point that we should not forget. That battle was won not only through the use of UAVs but by the brave servicemen of the US and the UK, and also—the important point he made—by the use of good intelligence. Much of it was secured not through UAVs but from other sources.

A number of speakers mentioned the legal framework for the use of UAVs, which is important. It is no different—nor should it be—from the framework for an attack by a conventional aircraft or, for that matter, UK forces on the ground. It is important that that legal framework is in place. If someone joins Her Majesty’s armed forces, one of the first things they are taught in basic training is the rules of engagement for self-defence. It is clear that even the most junior members of the armed forces know when they can and cannot use force by, for example, discharging their weapons. Whether delivered by a UAV or a conventional aircraft, the use of weapons is covered by a legal framework.

As a former Ministry of Defence Minister, I know that the same rules of engagement are used whether we are talking about a UAV or a Tornado using conventional weapons against a target. I accept that there is a lot of misinformation, and perhaps some ignorance, which the MOD needs to address. The idea is out there that the people operating UAVs are somehow isolated from the decision-making process. They are not. As I understand it, they are just as much part of that process as someone flying a Tornado would be. There are suggestions that they do not know the legal ramifications of what they are doing or about the intelligence around it, but that is not the case.

I know from my experience in the MOD that on a number of occasions in both Afghanistan and Iraq legal authority was given, whether in the form of advice given to the chain of command or an agreement by Ministers, but even when the missions had been agreed they were aborted. That was not because of an intervention in the chain of command, but because the operator saw that the situation on the ground was such that they would have to abort to avoid civilian casualties, or for some other reason. We need to be clear that UAV operators are not sitting in isolation. They have not just been given a set of instructions to carry out without any thought process; they are clearly thinking, which is important.

The hon. Members for Strangford and for West Dunbartonshire mentioned the idea of the autonomous use of UAVs. That is an entirely different situation from the current one. I agree that if technology goes down that route, we will require a new set of laws for how we set rules of engagement. An important point about the legal framework is that the MOD needs to do more to explain the rules of engagement.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden spoke about the legality of using the rules of engagement outside a conflict zone, which is a legitimate point to address. During my time in the MOD, the use of UAVs was confined to Afghanistan and Iraq, and the main bulk of their work was in surveillance and intelligence gathering—vital tools for the fight in Syria.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West made an interesting point about the fact that the threshold for access to UAV technology is getting lower. There is, I think, already some information about terrorist groups acquiring the technology, which means that we will need to develop ways to counteract it—for example, through jamming.

The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire made an interesting point about mental health. A lot of anecdotal evidence has come forward, some of which she mentioned. Perhaps the MOD needs to look at that, because we have new technology. For example, the defence medicine department at King’s College might want to consider doing a longer-term study of the effects on those who are operating UAV systems.

In closing, I am confident in the legal framework around the people who operate these systems. Is it important to have this debate? Yes, it is. Should the MOD do more, not only by explaining the rules of engagement but by actually answering questions when challenged? I think it should.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for securing this important and extremely interesting debate, and I thank all the other Members who spoke and attended. I also thank my right hon. Friend for recognising that this new technology has great potential to keep our armed forces safe and reduce civilian casualties. He and other Members spoke about its capacity to be a decisive tool and a force multiplier, about its precision, and about its role in keeping our armed forces safe. An important point that has not been touched on is that because the crews who operate armed drones are not themselves in a combat zone—although there are unique stresses, which I will address later in my speech—and may build up many hours of experience in operating and flying missions, they might actually make better judgments.

I shall first try to answer some of the technical legal questions that my right hon. Friend focused on, after which I will address the other points that Members have made. Our doctrine and rules of engagement are compliant with international law—including international humanitarian law—and underpinned by the principles of distinction, humanity, proportionality and military necessity. We are confident that the existing provisions in international law are sufficient to regulate the new weapons systems.

Our rules of engagement—as opposed to our static doctrine—are tailored to specific missions and will include policy, legal and operational guidance. They are typically given in a series of permissions and prohibitions that must be followed during a particular operation. We do not put the rules of engagement in the public domain, because it would give our opponents a considerable advantage if they understood that aspect of our operations.

A lot of what my right hon. Friend was driving at and a lot of the assurances he wants are contained in our doctrine. In 2011, the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre produced a joint doctrine note on our approach to unmanned air systems, to capture some of the issues we knew about at the time. Although it was a thorough piece of work, it was meant to be only a temporary document. There has clearly been a huge evolution in our understanding of unmanned air systems and the related issues, some of which were touched on earlier. That document initiated a debate about a whole range of legal and ethical issues. The original note was agreed by a wide stakeholder group in 2011, and the next version, to be called the UK air power doctrine, is anticipated towards the end of next year. It will develop the concepts and framework that will underpin our rules of engagement and policy development, and will be the receptacle for a lot of the issues raised by my right hon. Friend.

This whole subject area is clearly complicated by the current wider debates about international humanitarian law, where it applies and in what situations. We are used to dealing with state-on-state conflicts, but we are moving into very different territory these days, and that is becoming the norm. I devote a large proportion of my time to the subject, and one of the first meetings I had as Armed Forces Minister was with the International Committee of the Red Cross, to look at how we secure the primacy of international humanitarian law and deal with the questions around non-state conflicts.

Will the Minister give an undertaking that the MOD will co-operate fully with the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which will hopefully provide information about exactly that issue?

Yes, I can give my right hon. Friend that assurance. If we have been tardy in responding to the Committee, I apologise, and I am very happy to follow that up. The Secretary of State is due to speak to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) shortly, and I will follow that up after the debate. We certainly wish to co-operate, because putting more information into the public domain about the seriousness with which we take such issues will reassure hon. Members.

We have focused on air systems, but there are all sorts of other systems. We are investing massively in underwater systems, for which there is another set of legal requirements. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden referred to operational areas and war zones. Clearly, we might have to use these systems and others to respond to a range of situations, including hostage situations and so forth. The picture is complex, but we take it extremely seriously. An enormous amount of time is going into developing the doctrine as the technology develops. We want to operate in a good framework with best practice, and we want our allies to do the same. There is wide international consultation, and we will be playing a full role in helping others to raise their game.

Let me turn to some of the other points that hon. Members have made. The particular weapon or platform type that we use has no bearing on our decision about whether to use force. I assure the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) that the targeting boards and processes are identical for these and other weapon systems.

Several hon. Members focused on the effect on pilots. That issue is often framed in terms of the emotional effect of taking a life on the pilots conducting the strike activity, whether they become detached from the situation and whether they have access to the same support—decompression and so forth—that people on more conventional operations can access. It is often about not what people do, but what they see. I have spoken to pilots who have said that most distressing and frustrating thing is to see something take place that they are unable to prevent, in part because of the strict restrictions placed on them, which cause stress. Of course, the health and wellbeing of our armed forces personnel is of the utmost importance, and we are mindful of the pressure and stresses that such operations cause. The personnel involved are carefully monitored and, where appropriate, have access to the highest levels of military physical and mental healthcare. Looking after them is key, and that is one of the main roles that our front-line commanders are tasked with.

The RAF stress management and resilience training team has delivered stress awareness briefs to units operating these systems, to make personnel aware of the subject and of the range of assistance and support that is available to them. We recognise the unique nature of such operations, and we have embedded TRIM—trauma risk management—providers in RAF Reaper squadrons. As hon. Members know, TRIM provides a model of peer group mentoring and support for use in the aftermath of traumatic events.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) and the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin John Docherty) asked about others having access to such systems and our ability to combat that. I assure all hon. Members that that was a key strand of our recent strategic defence and security review, and there will be ongoing work to ensure that the right defensive systems and practices are in place to prevent such technology from being used against us.

Hon. Members spoke about the effect on hearts and minds. We understand that whatever means we use to deliver precision weapons in conflict zones—air strikes, operations on the ground or remotely piloted air systems—there will be a negative effect on the civilian populations in the vicinity. However, we do not take the decision to conduct strikes lightly, and we take every step to minimise the impact on civilian populations, including using precision-guided munitions.

Before the Minister finishes, do the Government have a view about whether it is appropriate to hold an inquest if a UK citizen has been killed in that way?

I was coming to that point, but I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s question now. He dealt with the issues he raised in a sensitive manner. The Prime Minister was clear that in circumstances in which we have no alternative—hon. Members have outlined why we had no alternative in that situation—and we think we can prevent and disrupt an imminent threat, we will take action. I think that is the right thing to do. In the specific case that the hon. Gentleman asked about, there will be no inquest. Because it is outside the coroner’s jurisdiction, there will not be a coroner’s inquest either. The answer to his question is no, there will not be either an inquest or a coroner’s inquiry.

It is, of course, the terrorists who target civilian populations and induce suffering. That is why we have and use these systems. All civilian deaths are regrettable, but in more than 80,000 hours of UK Reaper remotely piloted aircraft system operations, only one known incident has resulted in civilian deaths. UK forces have strict operating procedures to minimise the risk of casualties.

Finally, like all hon. Members, no matter what their views on this technology, I pay tribute to the pilots and crews who keep our country safe.

Thank you very much for chairing this debate, Mr Stringer. It has been a privilege to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the Backbench Business Committee, and I hope we have justified its decision to give us this debate.

Let me quickly pick up a couple of points. I thank the Minister, who answered many of our questions well. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) argued that we need a new law. Given that the UK air power doctrine will be published in 2016, what we really need more immediately is a robust and clear public application of the current law. That would be the most important outcome of this debate.

Some hon. Members argued that this is a new system, but it is operated in the same way as existing systems. The principle is the same, but the practicalities are different. To put it in physical terms, a Tornado can cross the length of a football field in one third of a second, but a drone can watch the same football field in orbit for eight hours. Clearly, there are differences in precision.

The rules of war were built around the fog of war and the doubt that it creates, so we have an opportunity to make them more precise and humane. However, as the hon. Members for West Dunbartonshire (Martin John Docherty) and for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) said, in American strikes, each kill of a terrorist is claimed three times. That implies that at least two innocent people die as a result of failures of intelligence, so there are areas of concern.

That brings me to the most important aspect of this debate, which is the blurring of the area between war and peace. Drone operations in war zones worry me much less than drone operations outside war zones. That is where Governments will be tempted to do things that are beyond what we normally expect of a civilised western Government. I will look very carefully at the 2016 UK air power doctrine for an answer to that issue.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the rules of engagement and the use of armed drones.