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House of Lords Hansard
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05 September 2019
Volume 799

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) recent events in the Persian Gulf, and (2) the importance of protecting United Kingdom waters following European Union Exit; and in the light of any such assessments, what steps they are taking to put the funding of (a) the National Maritime Information Centre, and (b) the Joint Maritime Operations Coordination Centre, onto a sustainable, permanent footing.

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and draw attention to my maritime interests recorded in the register.

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My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government are taking immediate steps to protect UK interests in our own and international waters by advancing a one-off payment of £9 million to the NMIC and JMOCC, which were recently brought together under a single director as a joint maritime security centre. These additional moneys will be used to develop maritime domain awareness and operational co-ordination capacity. A bid for longer-term assured funding will be submitted under next year’s spending review.

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I thank the Minister for her response. Little did I imagine when I put my name down in the ballot that there would be such a positive response 30 or 40 days later. I congratulate the noble Baroness on the excellent news. The maritime industry takes security extremely importantly and these two organisations do vital work in this important area. I am delighted that there is more money available. Would I be right in assuming that that is for one year? If that is the case, can she assure me that her department will press to put this funding on a longer-term secure footing?

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I assure the noble Lord that the funding is currently for one year, but the department recognises the critical work that these two organisations do, and it will be pressing very hard for a longer-term commitment in future.

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I thank the Minister for that positive response about the funding. We have been trying to do that for a long time. The Minister will know that the previous Labour Government set up the NMIC, so I am delighted it is going down the right track. However, we have a dearth of assets among all the departments, including the Navy, which is responsible for our offshore tapestry—our territorial seas and protection of the coast—so it is essential that those few assets are properly co-ordinated. Can the Minister assure me that the man now in charge of this centre has the authority to take command and control of assets belonging to different departments to respond to a specific emergency?

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It is always a pleasure to receive a question from the noble Lord. Indeed, the man now in charge is in your Lordships’ House today. It was, of course, the current Government who set up JMOCC, which works very closely with the NMIC. The noble Lord is quite right that maritime assets are spread over a number of organisations: Border Force, the Royal Navy and the coastguard. Co-ordination of these assets is incredibly important. JMOCC was set up in October 2017, so it is not even two years old. It has a lot of capability to deal with live incidents and make sure that maritime assets are in the right place. One of the things this £9 million will do is provide extra capacity so that a planning team can be built to make sure we have optimum deployment of all vessels where we need them.

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Would the Minister perhaps address the part of the Question related to the Persian Gulf, which she managed to pass over in total silence in her original reply? Would she not agree that probably the best way to strengthen maritime security in the Persian Gulf is to work with our other European allies to get a dialogue going about how to preserve the nuclear agreement with Iran and how to avoid tensions, which risk spiralling out of control?

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There is quite a lot in the noble Lord’s question and I will endeavour to cover as much of it as possible. I did not mean to gloss over it. The situation in the Strait of Hormuz is incredibly important. The NMIC has been giving valuable support, which I have witnessed myself, by monitoring vessels in the Persian Gulf, not only tracking Red Ensign vessels in transit, which of course is very important, but looking at vessels of interest to see what they might be doing. We are working very closely with our international partners. We are part of the international maritime security construct. We have committed to a frigate or destroyer for that construct, a Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker and, of course, staff in the command structure and below that. We are working with our international partners. It is absolutely important that Iran does not develop a nuclear capability. Our actions with our partners are part of that.

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My Lords, the second part of the Question relates to fisheries. Could the Minister tell us what assessment has been made of our capabilities to ensure that UK territorial waters will be sufficiently secure in the light of a possible Brexit? The £9 million will not go very far towards that, so is additional funding being put into insuring our fisheries?

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I am not entirely sure on what evidence the noble Baroness suggests that £9 million is not sufficient. It is the case that as Brexit happens and we leave the European Union we will look at our EEZ. We will be responsible for all vessels in our EEZ and it is likely that we will have to take a closer watch of what is going on within our coastal waters. It is right that we have fewer assets to deploy. However, and this is very important, there are now far better technologies available to maintain our watch over our coastal waters. There is a working group, led by the new director of the joint maritime security centre, looking at the threats and risks following Brexit. It will make sure that we have vessels deployed appropriately.

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Following the question from the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, are not events in the Persian Gulf, with £30,000 Iranian speedboats buzzing around our ships, rather an excellent example of applying the constant call of the noble Lord, Lord West, for more frigates and for more flexibility in our naval dispositions, as well as of the dangers, as in the past, of the great leaders of naval strategy deciding to put all of our cash into vast aircraft carriers, which might have their uses but are not much good in this kind of situation?

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Our maritime assets, particularly our frigates, are under review. We are looking at how we may want to strengthen that in future if we can. However, in the Strait of Hormuz we already have HMS “Montrose” in operation, and HMS “Duncan” will replace it. HMS “Kent” will maintain a presence and HMS “Defender” is also available. Not all these will be working within the international maritime security construct, but we are able to respond.