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Strait of Hormuz: UK Shipping

Volume 666: debated on Monday 21 October 2019

Happy Trafalgar day, Mr Speaker. Ships transiting the strait of Hormuz are currently exposed to the threat of being harried by units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and, in some cases, illegal seizure. While the international community is working to de-escalate tensions, up to four ships of the Royal Navy have been active in the strait since July.

No matter how capable, a Royal Navy ship cannot be in two places at once. On this anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, given that 95% of our trade is seaborne, is it not obvious that we need a much larger surface fleet, including a larger number of cheaper ships, if we are to play our full part in keeping world sea lanes open?

I agree strongly with my hon. Friend’s point, which is why this Government have invested in not only the new Type 26 frigate but the Type 31, which will be designed to be more affordable and will increase the overall number of frigates and destroyers that we are able to deploy. In this example, we very quickly managed to have four ships in the region to tackle the problem. We have now gone back down to supplying two ships there, but it was not the case that we could not get ships in the right place at the right time.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answers thus far. Clearly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is a constant threat to shipping in the strait of Hormuz. Does he agree that it is now time that the entirety of the IRGC was proscribed, with their assets sequestered and sanctions imposed on them and their leadership?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the threat that the IRGC poses to not only the region but countries such as ours. The Quds force is currently proscribed. Further proscription considerations are a matter for the Home Office. However, what is really important is that, where the IRGC poses a threat, like-minded countries around the world challenge that threat and ensure that it is dealt with.[Official Report, 24 October 2019, Vol. 666, c. 6MC.]

Trafalgar day has been mentioned, and later today, when “Up Spirits” is piped, we will all drink a tot to the immortal memory. I hope that the Minister will place on record his recognition and understanding that the Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel currently on active service represent the very finest tradition of our services. Let us put that on the record.

I am, of course, delighted to agree with the hon. Gentleman about the amazing quality that they bring to our armed forces. I am a landlubber, as a former soldier, so I can only marvel at what I have come across so far in this job.

Happy Trafalgar day, Mr Speaker. Yesterday I had the pleasure of seeing the sea cadets parade in a splendid fashion for Trafalgar day. I welcome the Secretary of State and the new Ministers to their posts.

The situation in the strait of Hormuz and the wider Gulf has significantly escalated in the past few months. We have seen unlawful aggression in the international seas, British flagged ships seized by the Iranian regime, attacks on Saudi oil facilities and a recent commitment by the US to send an extra 3,000 troops to Saudi Arabia. We need to de-escalate tensions. With that in mind, can the Secretary of State confirm that the UK will not be sending troops to Saudi Arabia?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we have to de-escalate the situation in the Gulf, but what we will do is make sure that our allies in the Gulf are able to protect themselves by offering advice about how they can protect their airspace and protect themselves from loss of life, which is incredibly important. One of the ways to make sure this is de-escalated is to ensure, if there was another Iranian attack, for example, on an oil facility or any other facility in that part of the world, that it does not lead to loss of life because that for sure would lead to some form of escalation. We stand ready to help our allies with knowledge on how to do that, and that is the best way we think we can proceed to keep calming the tensions.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but he will also be well aware of the catastrophic impact of the US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal. Sadly, this is not the only commitment that the Trump Administration have very publicly undermined—withdrawing from the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty and putting the chances of a new strategic arms reduction treaty in doubt—so what discussions has the Secretary of State had with his US counterparts on upholding and strengthening existing international security agreements?

On the joint comprehensive plan of action, dealing with the Iranian nuclear capability, I have made it clear to the United States, as have my colleagues in Europe, that we support the maintenance of that agreement. We think that is the best way forward to make sure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, but also to deal with the concerns that the Iranians have had over the years about their security. We will continue to press that, as we continue to press in the areas of Turkey and Syria for upholding international and human rights obligations.

The good doctor and the illustrious Chair of the Select Committee on Defence—Dr Julian Lewis.

23. I hope I get an extra-long question in the light of that introduction, Mr Speaker. May I take this opportunity to congratulate, for the first time, my right hon. Friend on becoming Secretary of State for Defence? May I return to the question of the tanker seizures and the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron)? Does not the fact that it was originally conceived that 32 frigates and destroyers would be necessary to complement the carrier strike forces and the amphibious forces mean that, at 19 frigates and destroyers, the size of the escort fleet is woefully too small? (900023)

I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend. I think I am going in front of his Committee later in the week, and no doubt I shall bow to his knowledge as he will no doubt grill me.

I understand the point that my right hon. Friend has made. All our defence capabilities have to match our ambitions across the board—that is the first point—whether that is land, sea or air. It is the case that our surface fleet is of over 50—of course, 19 are frigates and destroyers—and that means we do allow flexibility in our fleet to meet certain needs, such as disaster relief, which was done by a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship. However, in case the threat changes, we must always be prepared to move to match that threat, and we will always keep under review the size of our fleet, but it is also why we are continuing to invest in new ships—more capable sometimes than numbers because of the very potency they pose. The Type 26 frigate will be a world-leading capability, and that in itself will be a deterrent to many of our adversaries.