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UK Territorial Seas: Incidents

Volume 791: debated on Thursday 14 June 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government who has operational authority to coordinate the cross-departmental response to an incident within the United Kingdom’s territorial seas and exclusive economic zone.

My Lords, it depends on the nature of the incident. Operational responsibilities fall to a number of different government departments and agencies. For example, environmental incidents would be led by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and search and rescue operations would be led by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The Joint Maritime Operations Coordination Centre, or JMOCC, retains an overview of where appropriate assets are and seeks to co-ordinate their support.

I thank the Minister for his Answer, and indeed I thank him for the very good briefing that we had yesterday. However, as he knows, I remain concerned that no single figure in the JMOCC is in operational command. If there is a clash of options as to where these units should be used, I am afraid that with nine departments all talking about it, it will be like ferrets in a sack. However, my question relates to the funding of the joint maritime centre beyond April next year, as it does not seem at all secure. Can we have an urgent study into the number of craft and ships available for the various government departments tasked with looking after our inshore waters, our borders and the exclusive economic zone? Clearly, there are not enough of them, and there will be a crisis post Brexit unless something is done urgently. In that context, can we make more use of the Maritime Volunteer Service?

My Lords, I take the noble Lord’s points and suggestions fully on board. I have come equipped with a list of the assets and vessels that are available for deployment today, and I can inform noble Lords about them if they are of further interest. The noble Lord makes a very important point about the funding of the JMOCC. In a purely technical sense, it is fully funded, but only for the current financial year. However, he should be in no doubt that all contributing departments are committed to it and to the work that it does. Even in its short life since October last year, it has very much proved its worth in terms of co-ordination.

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend the Minister for the briefing that he gave yesterday, which I found very helpful. Although I agree with a great deal that the noble Lord, Lord West, said—I think that we need to be very clear about this—it seems that this is work in progress. This is a relatively new organisation which is developing as we go forward, so will my noble friend keep the House updated on what is happening? I think that many of us share the noble Lord’s concerns.

I am grateful to my noble friend and I can readily give him that assurance. In addition to the platforms and assets required for maritime security, which is of course an important priority, the key to effective maritime security operations is that they should be, first, intelligence led, secondly, risk assessed on the basis of that intelligence and, thirdly, well co-ordinated. There is no doubt in my mind that, since the creation of the National Maritime Information Centre—which the noble Lord, Lord West, was instrumental in setting up—and the JMOCC, we have seen a step change in efficiency in the delivery of these operations.

My Lords, can the noble Earl say a word or two about fishery protection and the continuing funded role of the JMOCC? Three-hundred thousand square miles of sea will need to be patrolled after we leave the European Union.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that question, which is very much centre stage in the Government’s thinking. We need to prepare for two things in this context after we leave the European Union. One is amended legislation relating to our territorial waters and exclusive economic zone, so that we ensure that our security and prosperity interests are fully protected. The other is to make sure that we have sufficient platforms and assets to monitor that area of sea. I would be delighted to talk to the noble Lord outside this Chamber on the work that is intended in that area.

My Lords, I declare an interest as deputy chair of the Harwich Haven Authority, which includes the ports of Felixstowe and Ipswich. Will the Minister tell the House what national oversight there is of the workings of the local resilience forums, which are very important in managing emergency planning? There are growing inconsistencies in their approach and a lack of clarity about who would actually be in charge. Can he tell me when they were last operationally exercised and what national oversight exists and whether he would be prepared to meet interested parties to discuss their concerns?

I would be more than happy to meet interested parties to discuss those concerns. This is an important element in the tapestry of activity on which we depend for maritime security. It is important to emphasise, as the noble Baroness is aware, that we rely not just on aerial surveillance, space-based systems, radar and so on, important as those things are; human intelligence is often important as well. There is now a network of field intelligence officers working for Border Force around the country. I would be happy to take this matter forward with the noble Baroness.

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Earl for the briefing that was provided yesterday. The improvements that have come with the co-ordination activity are welcome, but it is co-ordinating limited resources, as the noble Earl has admitted. He talked about it being intelligence led. Perhaps he cannot share it with us, because it would be difficult, but can he ensure and guarantee the House that he, as the relevant Minister, will have an intelligence assessment of what is actually required to prevent illicit materials, guns, people and so on entering the country, and whether that is sufficient given the resource that is available?

My Lords, Ministers collectively will have that picture presented to them because, as I have explained, it is not just the Ministry of Defence that is involved in this sector. The Royal Navy is deployed, as noble Lords will be aware, very much in a supportive role to many of the other agencies. But I entirely take the noble Lord’s point. He may be interested to know that UK Border Force has introduced into service six new coastal patrol vessels in addition to the five cutters already in service, while continuing to call on a maritime patrol aircraft contract for aerial surveillance. But that is not the end of the story: we are looking at future needs across the piece.