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Counter-Daesh Update

Volume 678: debated on Wednesday 22 July 2020

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to give a counter-Daesh update.

I should like to begin my statement by paying tribute to the commitment and professionalism of our armed forces. They operate in a world of constant conflict in which the dangers posed by the likes of Daesh and rogue states are ever-present, but we sleep more soundly in our beds thanks to their tireless dedication and sacrifice.

Since the House was last updated on the campaign against Daesh in July 2019, RAF aircraft have continued to patrol the skies on an almost daily basis, conducting attacks on some 16 occasions, striking 40 terrorist targets. Those targets range from caves occupied by Daesh terrorists in remote areas of northern Iraq to weapons caches, bunkers and training camps, and included the destruction of two Daesh strongpoints engaged in close combat with Iraqi security forces.

With that in mind, I would like to salute the service of Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon, who was tragically killed in a rocket strike on Camp Taji on March 11 this year. Lance Corporal Gillon’s entire career was dedicated to helping and saving lives. A sports physiotherapist in her civilian life, she joined the Reserves in 2015 and volunteered to be part of the Irish Guards battle group as a class one combat medical technician. At just 26 years of age, she was fulfilling a lifelong ambition to serve her country, and her commanding officer believes she was destined for great things. Lance Corporal Gillon remains a shining example of what our armed forces and Reserves stand for. Our thoughts are with her family, and I am sure the whole House will join me in remembering her exceptional life and condemning the cowardly attack that cut it short.

When the former Secretary of State for International Development last spoke to the House on this subject, he was able to report that Daesh had lost control of the territory they once held. Thanks to the continued pressure of the 82-member coalition and partner forces in Iraq and Syria, that remains the case, but the hard fight against Daesh is by no means done. Indeed, yesterday was the third anniversary of the liberation of Mosul from its grip. Its black flag no longer flies over the great cities of Iraq and Syria. Its leader, al-Baghdadi, no longer rallies his followers with calls to war. But the threat from Daesh, I am afraid, remains. Its poisonous ideology endures, and its pernicious influence continues to spread. Conflict, economic collapse and inequality are creating new opportunities that it will continue to exploit to grow and recruit. The prospect of its resurgence should concern us all. As long as it is able to operate over there, it can hit our citizens over here. Daesh retains its intent to carry out and inspire attacks against us and remains the most significant terrorist threat to the United Kingdom and our interests.

That is why our commitment to the Global Coalition against Daesh remains unwavering. The UK will continue to play a leading role in the coalition in the often unseen fight against Daesh’s insidious propaganda. Our military support has proven highly effective, and I would like in particular to recognise the work of the Iraqi security forces. They have made huge sacrifices in the fight against Daesh and become a capable and robust fighting force. With support and training from the UK and our coalition partners, they are increasingly able to conduct independent operations. Last year more than 50,000 personnel from the Iraqi army, federal police, border guard, Kurdistan security forces and emergency response battalions completed training delivered by coalition troop-contributing countries. In 2020 so far, the ISF have conducted more than 1,200 missions to defeat Daesh.

But, as the ISF themselves acknowledge, they still require our enduring assistance to defeat the threat. That is why the UK will continue to provide training, mentoring and professional military education to the Iraqis through the coalition, NATO Mission Iraq and bilateral initiatives. That is also why we will continue to provide essential air support. The terrorists have nowhere to hide. We have destroyed bunkers and hidden bases. This is a long-running effort. Indeed, since the beginning of this year, I have authorised 10 strikes on Daesh.

As the Daesh threat changes, so the coalition response evolves. The campaign has now entered a new phase, with greater emphasis on helping the Iraqi Government to develop a strong security apparatus. The UK’s commitment to Iraq’s stability and sovereignty is for the long term. That is why I signed a memorandum of understanding on our future defence relationship with the Iraqi Defence Minister last year—the first such agreement with a western power since the territorial defeat of Daesh. I look forward to building on that work. It is also why the UK seeks to support Iraq to minimise the destabilising effects of economic crisis, which could provide an opportunity for Daesh to re-emerge. Through our funding and leadership alongside the World Bank’s Iraq reform, recovery and reconstruction fund, we have managed to help build the Iraqi economy.

But, even as we seek to strengthen Iraq, there are others who seek to destabilise it. As I made clear to the House in the days following the US drone strike against General Soleimani on 2 January, malign activity by Iranian-aligned proxies only furthers the instability in which insurgents thrive. Meanwhile, rogue militia groups continue to conduct reprehensible attacks on diplomatic premises and bases hosting coalition personnel. We urge the Iraqi Government to protect coalition forces and foreign missions and to prosecute those responsible for the attacks. The coalition is in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi Government, to help defend Iraqis and others against the very real shared threat from Daesh. Without their efforts, Daesh will only be emboldened. The US and Iraq are engaged in an ongoing strategic dialogue to shape the coalition’s future support to the Iraqis in continuing to degrade Daesh—efforts that the UK sincerely supports. The collective mission to crush Daesh remains paramount.

We should not forget that Daesh respects no borders, and as it moves between Iraq and Syria, so must our response. In Syria, Daesh continues to take advantage of a fractured and unstable country. Like the ISF in Iraq, the Syrian Democratic Forces have made huge sacrifices in the fight against Daesh, and we are deeply grateful to them. The coalition continues to support this fight through aerial missions, seeking out Daesh locations and striking when necessary.

We are also determined that those individuals who have fought for or supported Daesh, whatever their nationality, should pay for their crimes. This should occur under the most appropriate jurisdiction, often in the region where the crimes were committed. At the height of the conflict, over 30,000 foreign terrorist fighters answered Daesh’s call and travelled to the region. Around 900 of those came from the United Kingdom. Of these, approximately 20% have been killed; 40% have returned to the United Kingdom, where they have been investigated, and the majority have been assessed now to pose no risk or a low security risk; and some 40% remain in the region, either at large or in facilities managed by the Syrian Democratic Forces or others.

We are working closely with international partners to establish an effective justice mechanism to make sure that all those who fought under Daesh’s black flag are brought to justice. As part of this, we continue our strong support for the UN investigation teams, UNITAD and the IIIM, building evidence of Daesh crimes in Iraq and Syria.

Syria is one of the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophes, and the UK remains at the forefront of the response. The International Development Secretary has committed to at least £300 million of aid to Syria and neighbouring countries for 2020, bringing our aid spend more than £3 billion since 2012 in the region. We are alleviating the burden of millions of people who have been displaced. We are providing food, water and healthcare. We are supporting the education and mental health of children scarred by Daesh occupation. We are providing grants for businesses to help them to grow and crops to farmers to restore their livelihoods.

In Iraq, 7.7 million Iraqi citizens were liberated from Daesh rule, but the damage inflicted by Daesh remains. Since 2014, the UK has committed £272 million in humanitarian support, providing millions of Iraqis with shelter, medical care and clean water. We have also provided £110 million putting basic utilities in education in place and enabling Iraqis to return to their homes.

We should take immense pride in our role as a leading member of the global coalition against Daesh—a coalition that has managed to degrade and bring this terrorist organisation to the point of weakness. Our challenge is now to hold our course, strengthening the grand and unprecedented coalition, denying Daesh every inch of comfort and every ounce of hope, addressing the poverty and lack of opportunities in communities that has helped Daesh to build its ranks, and finally, giving the Iraqi and Syrian people the security they deserve to rebuild their lives in peace. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for making this statement and for advance sight of it. I hope that this marks the return to Ministers fulfilling the Government’s commitment to provide the House with quarterly updates on Daesh. It has been a year and 20 days since the last statement and a lot has happened since, including that the last Secretary of State to make this statement is no longer a Member of this House or, indeed, the Conservative party.

I begin by paying tribute to the dedication of our armed forces and those from the multinational coalition, who continue the fight to counter the deadly threat of Daesh. I also salute the service of Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon. Her death is the toughest possible reminder that our troops, both full-time and reservists, put their lives on the line to defend us. Today, I want to reaffirm the strength of the commitment of my party for the UN-sanctioned global coalition and the comprehensive international approach against Daesh.

The coalition’s success so far is clear. Daesh no longer controls any territory, compared with its height six years ago, when it had sway over 8 million people and a land area the size of our own UK. However, it is also clear that Daesh is stepping up its insurgent attacks and must be at risk of gaining a foothold south of the Euphrates in the area controlled by the Syrian regime, backed by Iranian and Russian allies. The Secretary of State said this afternoon that the RAF has conducted 16 air attacks since July last year. Half of those have been in the past two months alone, so can the Secretary of State confirm how many air strikes have been carried out by the global coalition as a whole in the past two months, and is the number of such attacks rising?

In April, NATO agreed to an enhanced role against Daesh. Will the Secretary of State explain what this role will be, what additional activity will be conducted by NATO and what the UK contribution will be through NATO? In particular, will more NATO mean less US in Iraq and Syria?

A special concern arises from reports that Daesh foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are relocating to join other jihadist frontlines around the world. Others—the Secretary of State’s 40%—are detained in poorly defended prisons and detention centres in the region. With coalition Ministers set to discuss the emerging threat posed by Daesh and ISIS affiliates in west Africa and the Sahel, what role and commitment is the UK willing to consider as part of any coalition action?

Earlier, I talked about the Labour party’s support for the comprehensive international approach against Daesh. With 1.6 million people still displaced within Iraq and 6.6 million within Syria, the need for substantial humanitarian and development aid is acute. The Government’s Iraq stabilisation and resilience programme was set to end in March 2020. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether it has indeed ended and whether such support will be extended beyond this year, especially in the light of the abolition of the Department for International Development?

More than 3 million of those displaced in the region are refugee children, the blameless victims of conflict. Since the Government voted against the Dubs amendment, what steps have they taken to allow unaccompanied refugee children in Europe to be reunited with their families in the UK?

Finally, the protection of civilians and the upholding of international law through implementation of UN resolutions remain the foundation for the global coalition’s actions further to degrade and ultimately defeat Daesh. Our challenge, as the Secretary of State said, is now indeed to see this through, so that the Iraqi people and the Syrian people may rebuild their lives and their country in peace.

I will do my best to answer all the questions. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support of the counter-Daesh actions.

The right hon. Gentleman asks whether the number of strikes has increased. I can write to him with the details of the total global coalition strikes, but I can say that United Kingdom strikes have increased in the past few months, although that is mainly a reflection of the functioning Government of Iraq and a better outcome that they are requiring and requesting in support. He might remember that the previous Government were in a state of paralysis and then on a number of occasions not functioning. The increase in strikes is mainly a reflection of what we have seen since then, but I am happy to write to him and clarify more the overall coalition responses.

On NATO and training, NATO has sought to see where it can step in and support specifically in the areas of training, security improvements, nation building and so on. It has not progressed as fast as needed, because of covid and the quietness at the beginning of the year, from both the threat and everything else. Also, many of the traditional partners we work with feel that their training has been completed. Therefore, we are working with NATO and the Iraqis to see where else we can assist. We stand ready to do more, and we are exploring more.

At the same time, in answer to the question whether more NATO means less US, the outcome of the US security dialogue will, I think, be the next stage where we will be able to understand what more we can do. We all recognise that the previous Iraqi Parliament passed a non-binding resolution asking the United States forces to leave. That only becomes binding if the Iraqi Government act on it. The new Iraqi Government have said they continue to require coalition support, and that is why the security dialogue is ongoing at the moment.

The right hon. Gentleman also asks about the dispersal of Daesh into other safe spaces. It is absolutely the case, as he rightly points out, that safe spaces have been identified by Daesh, such as the Chad basin in west Africa, and indeed we see Daesh active in Afghanistan and Somalia. There is definitely a terrorist threat in west Africa—not all Daesh, but certainly an extremist, radical, militant, Salafi-type threat. That is why the French mission in Mali is supported by a squadron of our Chinook helicopters. At the end of this year, 250 British soldiers will deploy as part of the UN multidimensional integrated stabilisation mission in Mali—MINUSMA—to improve the security situation in that part of the country. For us, it is not only about helping our allies, the French and other European nations there, but about ensuring that the knock-on effect of a destabilised west Africa does not end up on the shores of the Mediterranean and cause another immigration crisis, as we have seen in the past, and that is something we are working towards.

On the repatriation of child refugees, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, we took the path of identifying the most vulnerable in refugee camps—either surrounding Syria or where they were—and bringing them back and repatriating them to this country to give them the support they need. It is my understanding that we have done that for over 20,000 of them. As for his comments about Syrian children in Europe, I will have to get back to him about that. However, the Government have made our position clear that we felt the best way to help in that situation was to take refugees from in-theatre, and other European countries should stand by their obligations towards refugees and asylum seekers. In addition, the Foreign Secretary has made it very clear that if children are identified in Syria, for example, who are vulnerable or orphaned and so on, we will explore in every case, on a case-by-case basis, what we can do to help those children as well—whether by bringing them back to this country or making sure they get the help they need.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement to the House. The Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi army united with the global coalition to help destroy the brutal Daesh caliphate, but Daesh is now regrouping in territories disputed between the Kurds and the Iraqis. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this underlines the vital importance of our actively helping Baghdad and Irbil resolve their differences in military and political matters?

It is vital, for all the people of Iraq and Syria, that we get as much stability as possible. It is incredibly important that we work with the Kurds and the Iraqis to ensure that, where there are differences, they are sorted out or negotiated. Indeed, we should work with both Turkey and Kurdish forces to make sure that they both accommodate each other and that they understand there is often a common need for them to work together, or certainly that it is in their common interest to defeat Daesh and al-Qaeda.

I, too, am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Like him, I would like to put on record our condolences to the family, friends and colleagues in uniform of the late Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon. He is right to say that she was identified as having had a stunning career so far, and it is sad that her best days in that career will no longer be realised.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to ask a few questions, if I may. First, is it the Government’s intention, at some point after the recess, to lay before the House an updated threat assessment, following the statement that the Secretary of State came to give in January, after the drone strike by the United States that killed General Qasem Soleimani?

On cyber-recruitment, which has affected my own constituency, and Daesh funding, I appreciate that this setting is not the place for it, but, similarly, can we get a bit more information for the House—I am not sure, but perhaps through the Defence Committee—on exactly what the Government are doing to tackle online recruitment and to strangle off the funding mechanisms that keep them going? The whole House will be concerned to hear what the Secretary of State had to say about attacks on diplomatic personnel and diplomatic infrastructure. Again, at some point, it would be useful to get more information on that.

More broadly, on Syria, which of course continues to break all our hearts when we see the ongoing war there, I have asked the Government previously why they have not taken action to remove British citizenship from the first lady of Syria and members of the Assad family, some of whom are living here in the city of London. I know the Secretary of the State will get up at the Dispatch Box and say he cannot discuss individual cases—that is entirely right—but can he at least tell us if, within the Government, serious consideration has been given to removing their British citizenship? I appreciate that that is not always simple, because sometimes having that citizenship can give us a judicial angle to pursue them in the courts.

Lastly—this is a more broad question—are we to take it that the integrated review is now fully back up and running, and when can we expect its publication?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am happy to publish, probably in the autumn, a threat assessment—I will probably put it out as a written ministerial statement in the Library—to give him an update. If that is all right, I will do it for Iraq and the region as well, because I think it is in everyone’s interests to get a sense of the threat that our allies, and also our troops, face.

On cyber and recruitment, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This is the age when a terrorist in Syria can reach out to his constituents, radicalise them in their own bedrooms, and target them with everything from glamorous glossies to how to make bombs. We have, unfortunately, seen that unfold on our streets. That is why—this comes from my old days as Security Minister, so it many have changed its name; if so, I shall write to him—we set up RICU, or the research, information and communications unit, in the Home Office. Its job is potentially to spot this type of publication, working alongside the police and the counter-terrorism internet referral unit, and then go directly to the internet service providers and ask them to take down the material. If memory serves me right, it has taken down hundreds of thousands of pieces of material.

Daesh is definitely very, very clever at using that medium. That is why, some two to three years ago, one of the methods of the counter-Daesh military response that we were using in Iraq and Syria was to target the media operations as much as some of the actual fighters, because those media operations are used to radicalise people who have never been to Syria. It is also appalling that Daesh now often targets those who are the most vulnerable in our homes and our societies because they are all it can recruit. We see too many people who are displaying mental health issues as well.

On diplomatic infrastructure, it is no secret that forces linked to Iran are interested in destabilising Iraq and effectively poking the stick as provocation. That is why the Government believe that the best solution is absolutely to de-escalate the situation. We do not work with the Iraqi Government to try to escalate the problem; we work with them to try to bring people to justice. Only recently, the Iraqi Government did indeed follow up work that we had been doing, and the Americans had been doing, on some suspects, and made a considerable number of arrests. It is not straightforward for the Iraqi Government sometimes, but we do not blame them for that—we recognise that this is a difficult area. Certainly, our messaging to the wider regional actors is that destabilisation helps no one. We would definitely condemn any attacks on our diplomatic infrastructure, which is of course the same infrastructure that delivers international and foreign aid.

On the issue of Syria and citizenship, in every case that I ever dealt with in taking away citizenships, I found, first of all, that it is nearly always a last resort. It is done where we cannot find another way of bringing someone to justice, or where they pose such a threat at a certain threshold. Every case is looked at based on a whole combination of factors, including the intelligence case, the threat and so on. In a sense we are agnostic. It would not just be about people posing a threat from Daesh, but people who pose a threat around a range of characters. Sometimes it is possible to keep them out of the country through an immigration bar—by just saying, “You can’t come here.” It is sometimes necessary to strip someone of their citizenship in order to keep us safe. I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that when I was in the Home Office, it was, in effect, based purely on the threat that appeared before us, whether or not it was from a regime or from a terrorist organisation. The factors in that were balanced.

I, too, salute the service of Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon. May I also pay tribute to the commitment and professionalism of all our armed forces? Will the Secretary of State confirm that this Government will continue to provide our armed forces with all the support they need, not only when they are overseas but here at home?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance and that prompts me to answer one of the other questions. The Integrated Review is back up and running. Part of the purpose of that review is to ensure that we have the right ambition funded to the right level with the right equipment. That is the best service that we can offer to our men and women of the armed forces, and that is what we are determined to do through this review.

As a former physiotherapist myself, may I pass on my condolences to the family of Lance-Corporal Brodie Gillon? Their tragic loss is a loss to us all. Since 2010, the Government have presided over a sharp decline in our regular armed forces. For example, the Regular Army has fallen from 102,000 to just 73,750—a 28% drop in personnel—and the number continues to fall. In light of the fact that NATO has agreed to enhance its role against Daesh, can the Secretary of State say how the UK will continue to play its part with such depleted armed forces?

It was going so well until the very last comment. If we stuck all our planning for the armed forces on numbers, we would end up back in the first world war. Modern armed forces need the right equipment and to be doing the right task. It is no good fighting the last war, the war before that, or the war before that. What is important is that we provide the right equipment, that we meet today’s threat—not yesterday’s threat—and that we plan for tomorrow’s threat as well. That is why this Integrated Review has started not with a discussion on the number of troops, or the numbers on the budget, but with threat, the doctrine of our adversaries and then what we need to do that job. On the point about the reduction of the regular armed forces, that was done because we recognised then that reserves, as Lance-Corporal Gillon has shown, are incredibly important in today’s world. We need specialists—specialists who do not grow on trees, specialists whom we use depending on the fight or indeed the need that we have to attend to—and reserves are playing a stronger and greater part in our armed forces and are absolutely key in being able to meet the modern hybrid threat that we face every day. I do not apologise that we have lost some regulars, but have increased our reserves. That is really important because that is why our troops remain among the best in the world.

As somebody who, while in the Royal Air Force, served on Operation Warden, the no-fly zone over northern Iraq, may I acknowledge the RAF’s operations—40 strikes against terrorist targets—in the past year?

On the Integrated Review, may I just confirm again with the Secretary of State that we will look at having well-equipped armed forces with the right numbers of personnel, because the threats are still out there, and the last thing that we want to do in this dangerous world is to reduce our military capabilities?

We have been clear that we are not in the business of reducing the potency and capability of our armed forces. We are in the business of making sure that we are modernising to meet tomorrow’s fight. The worst thing that we can do is modernise—actually not really modernise, but equip ourselves—for what happened 10, 15, or 20 years ago. That is why we are determined to invest more in autonomous areas, in new domains, such as space and cyber, which are really important. The threat against space is, regrettably, real. Our adversaries are weaponising space and we are deeply vulnerable in the west to such actions because we rely so much on space assets.

It feels like distant history now, but the vote in December 2015 on the subject of deploying airstrikes in Syria was one of the most difficult that I faced in my time in the House. I was eventually persuaded to support that, and I think that the situation that the Secretary of State describes today is one that justifies the decision that the House took in 2015, but the assurances that I and others were given by the then Prime Minister were around what would happen in addition to the military solution. It was about the reconstruction phase and the aid effort that would be made. What assessment has the Secretary of State for Defence made of the changes to the Department for International Development now being folded into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? Will we have an overseas development operation that can meet the obligations that were taken on by the Government in December 2015?

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is a thoughtful colleague and, indeed, at the time I think we were in the same Government. We should be proud that we spent £3 billion of aid in reconstruction and investment in that region and in protecting people from the effects of poverty. That is the other half of that reconstruction that he was worried about, and I think that that is incredibly important. On the other part of his question, which related to—[Interruption.] It has slipped my mind.

DFID. We often talk about organisations and machinery of Governments—they come around, and come and go—but the key here is the sense of purpose and the mission. The mission has not changed; the mission to invest and to help provide security and stability in Iraq and Syria has not changed and will not change. We all have an obligation to that part of the world because of events that happened perhaps 20 years ago or more, and that is not going to change. Whatever badge we put on the front of a door and whatever office someone sits in, that is not the fact; what matters to the people of Iraq and Syria is whether they are getting the aid, support, stability and security they need. I believe we are providing that, and we will continue to do that.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the primary role of British forces in the middle east will remain one of training, rather than of direct action, and that we will not be drawn into further significant land engagements?

My hon. Friend is right always to talk about the fear of mission creep. I believe the best way to ensure that mission creep does not happen is by Secretaries of State and Ministers making sure that they have strong oversight and that they keep a close eye on the mission, making sure that the parameters are set and communicated. His point is right; the best way to avoid a fight is to avoid a conflict. Our armed forces, sub-threshold, have a very real role to play in preventing conflicts from happening by improving security and training, and in some cases improving infrastructure—for example, in Sudan, the Royal Engineers have helped put in those types of important measures—so that a nation is strong and confident and does not need to resort to conflict.

I echo the Secretary of State’s tribute to the professionalism and commitment of our armed forces. I also wish to reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) about our historical allies in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, who not only feel that threat from Daesh, but feel that there is sometimes a difficult relationship with those in Baghdad. Will the Secretary of State tell us more about what we can do and what he can do to amplify the commitment of this House to our friends in Kurdistan, and about the work we can do to make that region not only safe, but prosperous in the future?

I can give the hon. Gentleman the commitment that we are absolutely determined to help those people who share our values and have a key part to play in the reconstruction of that region. He reminds me that we should not forget in this House the evil nature of the Assad regime, which rules Syria, where some of the Kurds are living. That is the regime that gassed its own people and disappeared people in the night. That has not gone away and it is currently focused on a direction towards Idlib, where the humanitarian catastrophe will only grow for as long as Assad and his regime continue.

I thank the Defence Secretary for the update on Daesh, but he will know that the world’s fastest growing Islamist insurgency is in the Sahel and west Africa. I welcome the commitment to send UK troops to be part of MINUSMA—the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali—the most dangerous peacekeeping mission in the world. Will he reassure the House that the National Security Council is looking across government at how the UK can address the sources of conflict in the Sahel and west Africa?

When my hon. Friend was in the Foreign Office, she did an excellent job on crafting the Africa strategy, from which we still work. Just so that Members realise that I have not just announced a new troop deployment, let me say that the MINUSMA troop deployment was announced to the House some years ago. I fear it may have been so far away that people may have forgotten and thought I have suddenly announced a deployment. Africa is going to be key in the next 10, 15, 20 years. It always has been important, but the spread of Islamist terrorism, through al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and Islamists in west Africa, is a real, existing threat that we have to deal with. They undermine fragile democracies and fragile countries, often those that are very poor. We cannot turn our back on Africa on these issues. Where we can, we have to support those countries to see off the threat of Islamists and help them on the path to successful economies. I know that DFID and its strategies are working to do that, and at the MOD we are doing it through training and other such things. That is why we commit to countries such as Kenya and, indeed, now to Mali.

The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) made a point about foreign and defence policy in west Africa. Is not the crucial part of that whether the Secretary of State wins his own battle with the Treasury in autumn?

I am fighting. I spoke to Lord Robertson of Port Ellen about his quite excellent defence review in 1998. We have all been around that block. It is important that we fight for the correct amount of resource. It is also important that we demonstrate, both to the taxpayer and the wider Government, the utility of defence, which is often sub-threshold in the area of training, nation building or intelligence gathering, so at the very least we can make sure we help our allies. In the integrated review, one of the arguments I will be using to the other Departments is that we help to stop conflicts. We are not there to start them, but to stop them, and in the long run that is how to save money.

I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s statement that Daesh is now a shadow of its former self thanks to the courage and professionalism of our armed forces. It is clear that Daesh and other terror groups know no borders, so can he reassure me and all my constituents that wherever the security threat comes from we will respond to protect our citizens?

The United Kingdom will follow international law and we will do whatever we have to do to keep our nation safe. Of course, it is always our preferred outcome to prevent people being radicalised, which is why I am a great supporter of the Government’s Prevent policy, and to work with our allies around the world to ensure we help them to deliver justice. Justice must be seen to be done, as well as be done, against those threats. That is why, across the world, we will examine every option we can. We will never forget that our job is to keep our citizens safe.

I am glad of today’s statement as well. I revisit a point that has been made, but not answered. Daesh is an evil that we must unite against, but the last statement to the House on these matters was in July 2019. There was a commitment in 2016 for a quarterly update on these matters. I urge the Secretary of State, given the gravity of our ongoing commitment, to make good on that commitment to provide a quarterly update to the House.

Yes, of course we should uphold that commitment. I will make sure that, subject to the covid interruption, we return to that. I put on the Government website every time a strike is authorised or happens, so that people can have an ongoing update about what we are doing in their name.

I also pay tribute to Lance-Corporal Gillon, a very brave soldier. My heart goes out to her family.

The growth of Daesh and its offshoots in Yemen depend on smuggling by sea along the Red sea and, specifically, through the port of Hodeidah. What can the Government do to ensure that the sea routes are closed to Daesh to help to bring peace to Yemen?

With our deployments in the Strait of Hormuz we participate in constabulary duties, including patrols and so on, and we work with our allies, such as the United States. Where we find intelligence or something suspicious, we try to help to ensure that that zone is not increased by weapons smuggling. Only recently, for example, the Saudis managed to interdict significant weapons supplies to the Houthi, which would have had only one effect—make the situation worse. Those supplies were interdicted and stopped.

I join with others in paying tribute to the extraordinary professionalism and dedication of our armed forces. I also pay tribute to Lance-Corporal Brodie Gillon. She will be very deeply missed and we will always remember her.

As the Secretary of State said in his statement, the recent increase in its co-ordinated bloody attacks shows that the fight with Daesh is not yet over. For our part, the UK must continue to set an example as a world leader in protecting civilians in conflict. What steps is his Department taking, as part of the integrated review, to update its protection of civilians strategy?

When we are engaged in targeting, as the hon. Gentleman will probably know, we are very, very careful to make sure that we adhere not only to international law but all the safeguards we can to ensure innocent people are not killed or put in harm’s way. At the same time, after a strike is concluded there is a wash-up, a debrief and a check back, through different methods, of what exactly happened to make sure if there are any lessons to be learned. I take incredibly seriously anything that would lead to civilians being killed. We do not help the people of Iraq by poor use of our weapons. It is appalling, and if we want to deal with Daesh we have to show we are on the side of the community, not frighten the community or indeed make mistakes that cost lives among those very people we are there to help. That is the most important thing for me. I take a very, very detailed look at it. I made sure, right from the start of being in this job, that I reviewed all the rules that we had signed up to and followed, and indeed what tolerances there were, because that is a very important obligation to any elected Member.

Order. I hope we can go just a little faster. I appreciate these are important matters—I am not trying to hurry them—but if we go a little faster, we can have proceedings concluded by 3 o’clock.

I welcome the Defence Secretary’s statement and particularly the progress that has been made on degrading Daesh. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on what steps the international coalition is taking to ensure that foreign terrorist fighters do not simply move their fighting elsewhere to locations beyond Syria and Iraq?

My hon. Friend asks a really important question. There are two areas: first, working with international partners through the UN and this investigation team to see what cases can be generated and what justice can be delivered to people either in the region or elsewhere. We are leaning into that and giving the support. In the area of intelligence collection, we collect intelligence, work with our partners and share that intelligence to make sure that we are, I hope, ahead of those people when they are choosing certain routes to where they would like to go. That is incredibly important. We do it successfully, but of course I cannot comment on the individual intelligence that we do.

May I welcome the financial support that the Secretary of State mentioned in his statement in relation to Syria and the Syrian Democratic Forces, which, as he has acknowledged, are at the forefront of defeating Daesh? He will also be aware that the Syrian Democratic Forces are looking after thousands of fighters and their families while being attacked by Turkish forces and associated militias. Does he believe that these actions are counterproductive and should be condemned? Will he say what representations have been made to the Government in Turkey to put an end to these actions, which are putting the security of the region at great risk?

I regularly speak with my Turkish counterpart and make my views known to him about what I think is the most appropriate response in that region. I understand, on the one hand, Turkey’s desire to make sure that its border security is intact. The Turks are the ones on the border of that awful war; they have lost thousands of people to the PKK, which is a proscribed terrorist organisation in this country. Therefore, from the Turkish point of view, they are deeply concerned about some of the Turkish terrorist groups. In that area, we in the United Kingdom definitely support Turkey in countering the terrorist threat, but on the non-terrorist threat, or the other threat, we make it quite clear that, in Syria, the Kurds are a key part of bringing stability to that country. It is stability in that country that will prevent further refugee flows and the unstable borders, and it is in everybody’s interest to work together, once they have got rid of Daesh and al-Qaeda, to make sure that that stability is returned.

I should also point out that there are over 3.5 million refugees from Syria in Turkey. I went to visit a refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border before the covid lockdown, and I heard from the head of the UN, who said very clearly that the Turks had done an outstanding job looking after their refugees. We should recognise that this is not straightforward, but the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) is absolutely right that some of those Kurds are our allies and have helped us. We need to make sure we help them.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement to the House. Can he provide an update, please, on the number of people who are joining Daesh as foreign fighters and what he might be doing to reduce the number of British citizens, or indeed prevent them from, joining such an evil force?

Fortunately, the flow of foreign fighters into Syria has almost dried up, but it is the case that in the United Kingdom and elsewhere we see people still aspiring to travel. When we see them, either we use the Prevent scheme to try to divert them away from that course or, if we have to, we disrupt them through other methods. The message has to be that there is no glory in going to Syria; it makes things worse. We all need to work together to prevent extreme radicalisation.

A recent King’s College report found that inaction from western Governments in dealing with their own citizens who affiliated to Daesh and who are detainees in Syria and Iraq is providing an ideal breeding ground for a revival of the terrorist caliphate. With reports of escapes from inadequately guarded detention facilities, the authors warned that this is posing a significant, long-term and strategic risk to the United Kingdom. What is the Secretary of State going to do to address this?

The hon. Lady is right to identify the concerns that we all have, but it is not as straightforward as she might think. If I were to go to Syria and take people against their will, I would be guilty of rendition. Funnily enough, the people who can be put on trial and convicted are the ones who do not want to come back. We have all suffered in this House—I am afraid I have spent money paying for the rendition that went on when her Government were in office. Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money have been paid because of the illegal rendition of citizens. That is something we have to be careful—

The hon. Lady cannot shake her head. She is part of the Labour party, and the Labour Government cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds paying compensation—predominately to terrorists—for people being rendered. It is not as straightforward as she thinks. That is why we are working with the UN and why we want it to be evidence based, and that is why I introduced, in the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019, the designated-area offence to make it easier to bring these people to justice in future.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his statement. I particularly welcome the contribution that British forces have made and pay particular tribute to service personnel from my constituency, Warrington South. As my right hon. Friend will know, British forces made the second largest overall contribution to the fight against Daesh, after the US: we led a 1,000-strong force. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the UK will remain at the forefront of the response to Daesh and, of course, the rebuilding efforts that really need to follow?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The assurance that I can give is that we tailor the size of our forces to the threat and the need. Currently, we have only 150 personnel in the country. We have 1,000 across the region who are engaged in providing air support and other support, but that is how far we have come down and still managed to make sure that we can support the Iraqis in dealing a blow to Daesh when they require it.

Of course, any rebuilding effort now faces the double whammy of the coronavirus pandemic, which the Disasters Emergency Committee says is at risk of spreading like wildfire in refugee camps in Syria and elsewhere. The Secretary of State spoke of the aid money that is going in, but will he say specifically what the UK Government are doing to tackle the pandemic among people displaced by the activities of Daesh? As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) asked, what impact will scrapping DFID have on the Government’s specialist expertise in responding to this situation?

On the hon. Gentleman’s last question, no one is scrapping the expertise in DFID—they are just merging the two Departments—so I think that expertise will remain. The aid is currently delivered directly into the camps through the UN and other agencies and they do, of course, have a covid response plan. I can write to the hon. Gentleman with the details of that response. We should pay tribute to the aid workers who are still delivering aid and support in both Iraq and Syria, often in a very hostile environment.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Those who have assisted Daesh should feel the full force of the law. Does the Secretary of State agree that our duty to protect our troops, our citizens and other innocent civilians precedes all other considerations?

Yes, it does. It is in the departmental name: Defence. We have to do it and keep ourselves safe, but never forget that our allies are part of that process.

The Secretary of State has referred to UK citizens who have returned having fought alongside Daesh. Does he feel that there needs to be a change in the law to ensure that those who have offered moral support—I am thinking of women who have travelled to become wives of Daesh fighters—are dealt with in our justice system?

The hon. Lady makes a really good suggestion. I am no longer the security Minister, but I think that it is something that we should definitely look at. We changed the law to make it much easier to convict people if they go to a designated area, to make sure that if they are there and do not have a reasonable excuse such as working for a UN aid agency and so on, they could be convicted. That is one of the measures that we have taken, but I like the hon. Lady’s suggestion, and it is certainly something we should look at.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Syria is one of the world’s largest catastrophes. Millions of Iraqis were held at the hands of Daesh, and we have worked hard to clear up the mess that it left behind. The job is not over. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will continue to help to rebuild and assist in tackling the poverty that has been left in Daesh’s wake?

As long as the Iraqi Government wish us to be there, to support them and help them in their defence against Daesh, we will be there.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, reminding us that Daesh has not gone away, with the insurgency continuing. In March, Daesh temporarily suspended its operations in Europe due to covid-19, warning its followers to

“stay away from the land of the epidemic.”

Like everyone else, it has continued to operate online, so what more can the Government do to eliminate that online presence and tackle the radicalisation or recruitment of terrorists among UK citizens?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government published an online harms White Paper about a year ago. It is really important that we encourage or make internet service providers and internet companies take a slice of responsibility. They cannot be agnostic on some of the poison that is spread on the internet, whether by cyber-bullying, sexual exploitation or, indeed, radicalisation. That is where we all need to go next.

I do not think it necessary to suspend the sitting. As long as hon. Members leave in a careful, spread-out fashion, that would suffice. I thank them for leaving so gracefully.

Bill Presented

Coronavirus Inquiry Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Sir Edward Davey presented a Bill to require the Prime Minister to establish a public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 11 September, and to be printed (Bill 168).