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Volume 604: debated on Monday 18 January 2016

I hope you will allow me, Mr Speaker, to formally welcome the new shadow Secretary of State and her team, and to regret the removal of their mainstream moderate predecessors, the hon. Members for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and for North Durham (Mr Jones).

In recent weeks, Kurdish forces have recaptured Sinjar and the Iraqi army is clearing the last pockets of Daesh resistance in Ramadi. In Syria, anti-Daesh forces have captured the Tishreen dam east of Raqqa. Air strikes, including by the UK, have inflicted significant damage on Daesh’s illicit oil industry, reducing its revenues by about 10%.

I am sure that the whole House will welcome what the Secretary of State said about the progress that has been made so far. Will he outline for the House whether any other measures are necessary to ensure that all members of the coalition intensify their efforts against Daesh?

On Wednesday I will meet my counterparts from Australia, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and the United States to review the overall direction of the counter-Daesh campaign. We have made good headway in Iraq and Syria in recent weeks, but it is now time to discuss how to maximise the coalition effort and exploit the opportunities that arise from the setbacks that Daesh has suffered.

A major contributor to Daesh activities and capabilities on the ground is the foreign funding that it receives. Will the Secretary of State outline what measures the UK is taking to curb the foreign funding that Islamist groups such as Daesh receive? In particular, what pressure is he putting on Saudi Arabia and Qatar?

That issue is one of the keys to Daesh’s survival, and it is important that we maximise our efforts to cut off its sources of revenue, including internal sources, such as its access to oil revenues and the taxes that it imposes inside Syria and Mosul, and external sources, such as the flows that the hon. Lady has described. We will discuss that issue in a wider meeting later on with all members of the coalition, including the countries that she mentioned.

The Secretary of State will be aware of suggestions that part of the way to constrain Daesh is to use back-door diplomacy. Does he agree with Canon Andrew White of Baghdad, who said in an interview:

“You can’t negotiate with them. I have never said that about another group of people. These are really so different, so extreme, so radical, so evil”?

Does that put into context the suggestion from the Leader of the Opposition?

Like my hon. Friend, I was surprised to hear the suggestion that somehow one could negotiate with Daesh, or even that Daesh has some “strong points”. The House will recall that those strong points include the beheading of opponents, burning prisoners alive, throwing gays off buildings, enslaving young women, murdering innocent British tourists in Tunisia, and slaughtering young people on a night out in Paris. I fail to see any particular attraction.

For the benefit of the Secretary of State, I do not think that Daesh has any strong points, but I would argue with the Prime Minister’s central argument about there being 70,000 so-called freedom fighters ready to take on Daesh on the ground in Syria. On Tuesday at the Liaison Committee the Prime Minister still could not defend that figure. Can the Secretary of State do so today?

Yes I can because it is not my figure or that of the Prime Minister: it is an assessment produced by the Joint Intelligence Committee, independently of Ministers. I say gently that if the right hon. Gentleman does not think that there are that many freedom fighters in Syria, how does he think that the civil war has lasted for five years, given that the Syrian army is more than 200,000 strong? People have been fighting the Assad regime.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a significant assault by ground forces, preferably local troops, is the only way to deal with Daesh in the longer term?

Yes. In the end, Daesh will only be prised out of cities such as Mosul in Iraq or Raqqa in Syria by local forces. We have already seen some success in the recovery of Baiji and Ramadi in Iraq, and I hope eventually we will see such success in other cities along the Tigris and the Euphrates. In the fullness of time I hope we will see similar action in Raqqa, but that does not mean that we should not now be getting on with a full deployment of airstrikes to deal with the infrastructure that supports Daesh.

I, too, welcome the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) to her place and wish her well in her new post. I know that we are in agreement on important areas of defence, and I look forward to working constructively with her and her team over the coming years.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister, who told the Liaison Committee last week that in the case of civilian casualties,

“if people make allegations we must look at them”?

We do an assessment after every British strike of the damage that has been caused, and check very carefully whether there are likely to have been casualties. Of course, that is taken into account in planning and approving the strike in the first place. It so happens that, in the first year and a bit of operations, we are not aware of any civilian casualties so far in our strikes in Iraq or more recently in Syria, but they are military operations—we do everything possible to reduce the risk of civilian casualties, but it is not possible to eliminate it entirely.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but can he therefore confirm that the Ministry of Defence will accept evidence of civilian deaths from other sources outwith UK military personnel and local friendly forces? Will he assure the House that the evidence from highly credible organisations such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Airwars and the White Helmets—groups that work on the ground and that are very often the first people on the scene—will be considered when calculating civilian deaths in future?

Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that we will look at any evidence brought forward in open source reporting by other organisations in the assessment we make of each of the strikes in which our aircraft are involved. I have replied directly to one of the organisations he mentions—Airwars—pointing out that there is no particular evidence to back up the assessment it made in that particular case.

Will my right hon. Friend give the House an update on the military and non-military support that is now being provided to opposition fighters in Syria?

Along with other countries, we have been supplying non-lethal equipment to those fighters and we played a part in the initial training programme that was organised by the United States, and we remain ready to do so. In addition, we are working with those groups on a route to a political settlement in the talks that are now under way under the so-called Vienna process.

I thank the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) for their generous welcome to this job. The Secretary of State has the honour of having perhaps the best job in Westminster. Mine is the second best. Hopefully we will change roles fairly soon. He can be assured that difficult questions will be asked and that we hope to work with the Government where we can for the sake of the security of people in Britain.

Senior military personnel have repeatedly warned that the RAF has been at full stretch, and that was even before the air strikes on Daesh began in Syria. A squadron of F-35s has only just been ordered, but will not come into service for several years. In the meantime, the air campaign against Daesh will be dependent on 40-year-old aircraft. Can the Secretary of State tell us how long he believes the air campaign can safely be maintained? What would happen if a new threat emerged? Would the RAF have capacity for any operations further than those to which the Government have already committed?

I thank the hon. Lady for her initial remarks. I note her ambition to move from the Opposition side of the House to the Government side, which was presumably shared by the two previous shadow Defence Secretaries that I have so far come across. Let me just say to her gently that a defence policy of nuclear submarines with no nuclear weapons, that regards Daesh as having “strong points”, and that wants to end the Falkland islanders’ right to self-determination, may be Labour’s defence policy, but it will never be Britain’s defence policy.

In respect of the hon. Lady’s question, the RAF is deploying a range of aircraft on Operation Shader in the middle east, including modern Typhoons and unmanned aircraft alongside the Tornados to which she referred. I can confirm that the RAF is well able to sustain that effort.