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Defending the UK and Allies

Volume 835: debated on Monday 15 January 2024


My Lords, it has come on to the monitor fairly late, so I thought it might be helpful for the House to know that the Back-Bench speaking time will be 30 minutes, if required.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the action that we took on Thursday night against Houthi military targets in Yemen.

Since 19 November, Iran-backed Houthis have launched more than 25 illegal and unacceptable attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, and on 9 January they mounted a direct attack against British and American warships. They fired on our ships and our sailors—it was the biggest attack on the Royal Navy for decades—and so we acted. We did so in self-defence, consistent with the UN charter, and to uphold freedom of navigation, as Britain has always done.

Alongside the United States, with support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands, we ordered the RAF to strike two Houthi military facilities in Yemen. I want to be clear that these were limited strikes. They were carefully targeted at launch sites for drones and ballistic missiles to degrade the Houthis’ capacity to make further attacks on international shipping. I can tell the House today that we assess that all 13 planned targets were destroyed. At the drone and cruise missile base in Bani, nine buildings were successfully hit. A further three buildings were hit at Abbs airfield, along with a cruise missile launcher caught in the open. We have seen no evidence thus far of civilian casualties, which we took great care to avoid. I know the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the incredible bravery and professionalism of all our service men and women.

The need to maximise the security and effectiveness of the operation meant that it was not possible to bring this matter to the House in advance, but we took care to brief Members—including you, of course, Mr Speaker, and the leader of the Opposition—before the strikes took place, and I have come to the House at the earliest opportunity. I do not take decisions on the use of force lightly. That is why I stress that this action was taken in self-defence. It was limited, not escalatory. It was a necessary and proportionate response to a direct threat to UK vessels, and therefore to the UK itself.

Let me be absolutely clear why the Royal Navy is in the Red Sea. It is there as part of Operation Prosperity Guardian, protecting freedom of navigation as a fundamental tenet of international law. The Houthis’ attacks on international shipping have put innocent lives at risk. They have held one crew hostage for almost two months, and they are causing growing economic disruption. Global commerce cannot operate under such conditions. Containers and tankers are having to take a 5,000-mile detour around the Cape of Good Hope. That pushes up prices and imperils the passage of goods, foods and medicines that the British people and others rely on.

We have attempted to resolve this through diplomacy. After numerous international calls for the attacks to stop, a coalition of countries gave the Houthis a clear and unambiguous warning two weeks ago. Last week, the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning the attacks and highlighting the right of nations to defend their vessels and preserve freedom of navigation, yet the Houthis continued on their reckless path.

We should not fall for the Houthis’ malign narrative that this is about Israel-Gaza—they target ships from around the world. We continue to work towards a sustainable ceasefire in Gaza and to get more aid to civilians. We also continue to support a negotiated settlement in Yemen’s civil war, but I want to be very clear that this action is completely unrelated to those issues. It is a direct response to the Houthis’ attacks on international shipping. We should also recognise the risks of inaction. It would weaken international security and the rule of law, further damage freedom of navigation and the global economy, and send a dangerous message that British vessels and British interests are fair game.

There is another point here, which is often overlooked. The Houthis’ attacks risk worsening the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen itself. The United Kingdom helps to feed around 100,000 Yemenis every month, with aid arriving via the very sea routes that the Houthis have in their sights.

The threats to shipping must cease. Illegally detained vessels and crews must be released, and we remain prepared to back our words with actions. But dealing with that threat does not detract from our other international commitments; rather, it strengthens our determination to uphold fundamental UN principles. If our adversaries think they can distract us from helping Ukraine by threatening international security elsewhere, they could not be more wrong.

On Friday, I travelled to Kyiv to meet President Zelensky and address the Ukrainian Parliament. I took a message from this House to the Rada that we will stand with Ukraine today, tomorrow and for as long as it takes. If Putin wins in Ukraine, he will not stop there, and other malign actors will be emboldened. That is why Ukraine’s security is our security. That is why the UK will stay the course, and it is why I am confident that our partners share our resolve.

Far from our resolve faltering, our military support to Ukraine will increase this year. We will provide the biggest single package of defence aid to Ukraine since the war began, worth £2.5 billion. That will include more air defence equipment, more anti-tank weapons, more long-range missiles, thousands more rounds of ammunition and artillery shells, training for thousands more Ukrainian service men and women, and the single largest package of advanced drones given to Ukraine by any nation. All this is on top of what we have already provided to support Ukraine.

In total, since the war began, the United Kingdom will have provided almost £12 billion of aid to Ukraine. We were the first to train Ukrainian troops, the first in Europe to provide lethal weapons, the first to commit main battle tanks, the first to provide long-range missiles, and now we are the first to keep the promise made at last year’s NATO summit, alongside 30 other countries, to provide new bilateral security commitments. Ukraine’s rightful place is in NATO, and NATO will be stronger with Ukraine in it, but these commitments will help bridge the gap until that day comes.

Under the new agreement that we signed with President Zelensky, we are building Ukraine’s military capacities; and, if Russia ever invades Ukraine again, we will provide swift and sustained assistance, including modern equipment across land, air and sea. Together with our allies, the UK will be there from the first moment until the last. For all of this, I bring a message of thanks from President Zelensky to the British people. Today, I hope that this House will join me in sending a message back to the Ukrainian people: that we stand together as one in support of these firm commitments.

We are building a new partnership with Ukraine, designed to last 100 years or more. Yes, it is about defence and security, but it is also about trade, investment, culture and more. There could be no more powerful sign of our unique bond than Ukraine’s decision to adopt English as the language of business and diplomacy. So, through the British Council, we are going to fund English language training for the Ukrainian people.

In dangerous times, we are investing in defence, hardening our critical infrastructure and building our alliances. We are resolute in our principles: international security; the rule of law; and the freedom to determine your own future. An attack on those principles is an attack on everything that we believe in and on which our lives and livelihoods depend. As the home of parliamentary democracy and a leader in collective security, it is our responsibility to defend those principles and to defend our people. This is who we are. This is what Britain does and will always do. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the Lord Privy Seal for repeating today’s Statement. I also thank him, on my behalf and that of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, for our briefing at the Cabinet Office today; it was appreciated and useful.

As we heard in the Statement, this situation has been escalating over several weeks, putting lives at risk and causing considerable disruption to international shipping. First, we concur that the Government were right to do all they could to end such attacks through international diplomatic routes. We appreciate the considerable efforts that were taken to avoid a military response. As the Statement said, freedom of navigation is a fundamental tenet of international law, so seeking as wide a consensus as possible through the UN and other routes was the right approach.

However, when it became apparent that these diplomatic efforts were not working, it was also right that the Government acted in self-defence following further direct attacks on our Navy and US warships. So we back this limited and targeted action to reinforce maritime security in the Red Sea. We strongly condemn the Houthi attacks targeting commercial ships of all nationalities, putting civilians and military personnel—including British forces—in serious danger. Their actions are unacceptable and illegal. If left unaddressed, they could lead to a devasting rise in the cost of essential food in some of the poorest countries in the world.

The international community clearly stands against the Houthi attacks. Alongside the UK and the United States, four other countries were involved in this military operation. More than a dozen nations are part of the maritime protection force in the Red Sea, while many others supported the recent UN Security Council resolution that condemned these attacks in “the strongest possible terms”.

The UK’s response was proportionate and targeted to avoid civilian casualties. Can the Leader of the House provide more information on the strategic objectives of the military response, including how the Houthis’ response will be judged? He will be aware that, today—before the Statement was drafted, I think—there were reports of a further missile attack on a US cargo ship. I am sure that the Government will monitor this carefully; there may not be full information available yet but, at this stage, I ask him to commit to returning to your Lordships’ House in order to ensure that we are kept informed.

We are not clear yet whether this is a short-term targeted response or part of an ongoing campaign from the Houthis, but can the Leader of the House confirm that the strategic objective is to degrade or destroy the capability to launch attacks on international shipping? In the light of this assessment of capabilities, does he agree that further parliamentary scrutiny will be essential?

Our primary objective has to be the avoidance of escalation across the Middle East, so continuing engagement with our international partners is vital. None of us wants to see this proportionate act of self-defence being exploited by those in the region who seek to expand and escalate violence. This includes in Yemen itself. We must support international diplomatic efforts to address the huge humanitarian impact of the civil war.

Our Armed Forces across the region are showing the highest professionalism and bravery, both in defending commercial shipping and in this targeted action. As the Leader of the House said, we thank them; it is also worth putting on the record that we are proud of them. They continue to show that Britain is a force for good. However, can I ask the Leader of the House about their protection and how the Government are bolstering protection for our service men and women in the region?

The Leader of the House also referred to Ukraine. The professionalism of our Armed Forces has been crucial in our support for Ukraine. We on these Benches welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement of £2.5 billion for Ukraine next year and strongly support the agreement on security co-operation. This will provide President Zelensky with the vital confidence that he needs to plan for the year ahead; it also cements our support for self-defence for decades.

The Leader of the House asked this House to send a message to Ukraine. The strong message from this Parliament continues to be that we in the UK stand united—and will continue to stand united—in our condemnation of Putin’s invasion and our determination that Ukraine is equipped to defend itself for as long as it takes.

It is now more than 100 days since the shockingly brutal events of 7 October. Israel’s right to self-defence is fundamental yet, the longer the conflict in Gaza rages, the more the risk of escalation throughout the entire region grows. All our thoughts are with the civilians who have been, and continue to be, caught up in this horrific war. As my noble friend Lord Collins of Highbury confirmed earlier today in your Lordships’ House, we welcome the efforts to secure UN Resolution 2720 and the Government’s commitment to seeking a sustained ceasefire, which would deliver the humanitarian support that is so desperately needed.

In the same way that we should seek to avoid escalation in the Red Sea, we must also urge restraint on the Israel-Lebanon border and make it crystal clear to parties that the UK does not support this conflict extending into Lebanon. On the issue of humanitarian support into Gaza, can the Minister say anything about other routes that may be looked at in order to provide such support, such as via the Royal Navy or airdrops? How are the Government supporting the diplomatic process that is being brokered by the US envoy to prevent a full-scale war breaking out across that border between Israel and Lebanon?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Prime Minister’s Statement.

As the Statement makes clear, our military action follows not only a direct attack on our warships but some 25 other attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea over recent weeks. These attacks not only jeopardised many lives but were and are threatening the continued operation of the sea route through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, which plays such a vital role in the world trading system. We therefore also believe that the UK had little option but to act.

The challenge in these circumstances is always whether the action we take will have a lasting deterrent effect and whether it is proportionate. Whether it has a lasting effect on the Houthis remains to be seen, but it was certainly limited in scope and was, in our view, proportionate to the attacks that we had suffered. However, it is hardly likely to be the end of the story, and I repeat the request by the noble Baroness that Parliament has every opportunity to debate events as they unfold.

What makes this episode so significant and worrying is that it represents yet another flashpoint in an already extremely volatile area where the risk of escalation attends every move. I am sure that the Minster and the Government are well aware of this risk, but I ask them to keep it front of mind in the coming days and weeks as the situation develops. The Prime Minister says that this action is completely unrelated to what is happening in Gaza, but there is surely some link. It is therefore reassuring to hear the Prime Minister repeat that the Government will continue to work towards a sustainable ceasefire in Gaza and getting more aid to civilians. Can the Minister say anything about this work and give the Government’s assessment of the likelihood of aid being increased in the short term and of achieving a ceasefire at some point in the coming days and weeks?

On the Houthis, can I ask the Minister about the extent to which the UK and the US Governments have sought and obtained international support for the actions that we have taken? It is obviously in the interests of a large number of countries, not least our European neighbours, that the Suez Canal route is kept open, yet the Statement only mentions the Netherlands among all the European countries that have supported our military action. What is the attitude of other major nations in Europe towards this action? What efforts have been made to get their more overt support to date, and what more is being done to extend the coalition, whose membership at the moment looks rather limited compared with the global nature of the threat posed by continued Houthi military action on world trade?

As we take action against the Houthis, what more can we do to support the recognised Yemeni Government, not least by helping them to solve the huge problems of malnutrition and famine that afflict Yemen, where some 11 million children remain in need of humanitarian assistance? The Statement says that the Government feed around 100,000 Yemenis every month. This clearly meets only a very small fraction of the need. Might the Government consider, at the very least, reinstating the £200 million cut which they recently made to our aid budget for Yemen?

The Statement also deals with our continuing military assistance for Ukraine. We support the strong line which the Government have taken in pledging our long-term support to the country in its struggle against the Russian invaders. However, we hear disturbing reports that some other members of the coalition supporting Ukraine may be getting cold feet. Can the Minister tell the House what diplomatic efforts the UK is making to ensure that Ukraine gets the support it needs in the future, not just from this country but from our other international partners?

It has become a cliché to say that we live in an increasingly dangerous world. Yet, as this Statement demonstrates, it is sadly the case. We will have to work increasingly hard in the months and years ahead, not just on our own but in co-operation with other like-minded democracies, to vigorously defend the principles for which we stand.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful for the tone and content of the response from the noble Baroness and the noble Lord. In person, by their presence here and in what they said, they absolutely exemplified what I was talking about in the Statement—the need to send a united and common message out from this House to the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian Parliament that we will be there for the duration, for as long as it takes, and of our steadfast and implacable opposition to interference with freedom of navigation, which is one of the most fundamental and long-lasting principles of international law.

The noble Baroness was quite right to point out that these events followed weeks if not months of continuing activity by the Houthis dating back to last year. I think it was on 16 December 2023 that the HMS “Diamond” brought down an attack of drones targeting commercial shipping in the Red Sea. We said at the time that it was the first time in more than 30 years that the Navy had fired in action at an aerial target. Yes, warnings were given on 3 January this year. We joined the international statement on the Red Sea. My noble friend the Foreign Secretary is here, and I can assure the noble Lord and the noble Baroness that there have been continuing unceasing efforts on the diplomatic front and in direct conversations and channels, for example, with the Iranian backers of the Houthis—the Foreign Secretary himself spoke to the Iranian Foreign Secretary—to make people be in no doubt that this is a situation which the international community could not and will not tolerate.

I think there has been a slight downgrading of the degree of international support and commitment here. There are 20 other nations involved in Operation Prosperity Guardian, which is the core of the protection of the Red Sea. Although we only cited four nations that were specifically involved in the targeted operation that took place last weekend, many other nations are offering practical support and diplomatic assistance. Let us also not forget that on 10 January the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning the attacks and on the rights of nations to defend their vessels and to preserve the freedom of navigation. The right to self-defence is inherent in Article 51. We were exercising self-defence, but in our action we are also exercising action in defence of international law and freedom of navigation.

The noble Baroness asked what our strategy is. Our strategy and intent, and the intent of the international community, is to ensure and maintain the principle of free and open navigation. A clear signal has been sent to the Houthis, in a different form of language from the very clear signals that were sent before. We hope very much that in time it will be heeded and that we can restore international law and the rule of order in the Red Sea. We urge the Houthis to stop jeopardising—I agree with what the noble Baroness and the noble Lord said—the best chance of peace in Yemen for years, which happened on the basis of previous discussions. They need to engage constructively to expand the benefits which the de facto truce in Yemen brought to the Yemeni people.

I was asked about aid to Yemen. We are deeply committed to support for Yemen. In March, we committed £88 million of aid for this financial year and we are delivering care for about 400 facilities there at the moment.

The Houthis must heed the message and obey international law, and those who back them must urge them to do so. I am not speculating on what might or might not happen in the future. I am aware of a further incident today, but I think the noble Baroness will understand if the British Government and our partners wish to evaluate what has happened and what may be behind it.

On coming back to this House, we have the inestimable value of having my noble friend the Foreign Secretary here in it. He is answering Questions tomorrow, although not on this subject. I know that he and I are very committed, as is my noble friend the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms, to making sure that your Lordships are kept informed—so far as we may.

I assure the noble Baroness that we are aware and have taken into account the positioning of other British forces and assets in the broad area. Without going into detail, certainly, consideration is being given to the security of those people.

So far as Israel and Gaza are concerned, we absolutely reject the absurd Houthi claim that this is anything to do with the Israel and Gaza conflict. The Houthis were firing on ships that had nothing to do with Israel. This is a completely false narrative and we should not fall into the trap—I was pleased that the noble Baroness and the noble Lord did not—of linking it in the way that the Houthis suggest.

Of course, we would love to see the conflict in Israel and Gaza somehow come to a conclusion. No one wants to see it go on a moment longer than necessary and we support a sustainable ceasefire, as the Prime Minister has made clear, but it must be sustainable—one that will last. That means, frankly, Hamas no longer in power in Gaza and able to threaten Israel with rocket attacks and other forms of terrorism. Hamas does not represent the Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations. Perhaps some of those who charge around on the streets of our kingdom might recognise that and think of it for a moment.

However—and I fully take what noble Lords opposite have said—ahead of a sustainable ceasefire, we want to see immediate and sustained humanitarian pauses to get more aid in and hostages out, helping to create the conditions for a durable peace. A sustainable ceasefire would be just the first step.

In our dialogue and that of the Foreign Secretary, we are looking at ways to get more humanitarian aid in, as and how we can. We have encouraged the Israeli Government to facilitate some access from the sea, without going into specific places or points. We are very much on the case here, but I re-emphasise that the aim is to deter the Houthis, and to deter the Russians in their unlawful breaches of international law and their aggression in Ukraine.

I again thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord opposite for what they said on Ukraine. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that although we are the first in terms of the security arrangements announced in the Statement, they flowed from the Vilnius discussions. In the days and weeks ahead, I think that he will find that many other nations follow our course.

My Lords, this is a sombre moment, because we have seen an escalation provoked entirely by Iran and its proxies, but we must be on our guard not to fall into the trap of provocation leading to a wider conflagration. I entirely support the Government’s action and I hope that they will continue to consult Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord True, might recall that I moved the first Private Member’s Bill in 2016 trying to regularise a war powers Act of some sort. I was given assurances that Parliament would always be consulted and that there was no need for legislation.

International co-operation has been mentioned today. We know that European Union member states are meeting on 1 February to determine how a naval task force mission might be organised. My question to the noble Lord is whether, once we know what their naval mission will be like, there will be any element of interoperability and burden-sharing with them.

This action is entirely necessary. I have just returned from Singapore, and I looked out on the Malacca Strait and saw what harm a lack of freedom of maritime navigation might do there, in the Taiwan Strait and in numerous other places. I am very pleased that we are taking our United Nations Security Council responsibilities to defend international peace and security so seriously.

I very much welcome what the noble Baroness has said. Who gains most from freedom of navigation? It is some of the poorest people in the world. Not only in this action standing up for the principle of free navigation at sea but in the developing situation in Ukraine, the British Government have been extraordinarily active in protecting navigation.

In Ukraine, not least because of the consistent material support that the British Government have given to the Ukrainian Government, which we commit to continue, the Ukrainians have been able strategically to force back the aggressive actions of the Russian fleet and deployment in the Black Sea. That has enabled an opening of grain routes via the Black Sea and out to the world, which has led to very considerable exports of Ukrainian grain. One of the most deplorable things about the Russian attempt to block navigation in the Black Sea was that the people who gain most from Ukrainian grain exports are, as I said, some of the poorest in the world.

I assure the noble Baroness that we are working tirelessly with allies to keep an international focus on this. We were originally there as part of Operation Prosperity Guardian, which itself is an international and multinational action. I very much accept what the noble Baroness said.

My Lords, I unequivocally support the action that the Government have taken and observe that it was not only the right course of action but the only course of action. I pay tribute to our Armed Forces for their precision and professionalism in discharging that essential task.

I ask the Minister to reassure me on one point and it is quite simply this: I know from my previous experience as a Defence Minister that paramount in any discussion about the deployment of our forces and our defence capability is operational security. It must dominate any further discussion on any future intervention, which I fear may be more likely rather than less. In this Chamber at least, can we be reassured that, if the Government are contemplating further action that involves deployment of our Armed Forces, absolute regard will be had to the need to keep matters covert until the intervention has taken place, and then there is an appropriate place for discussion in Parliament?

My Lords, there is a balance to be reached in these things. I agree with what my noble friend said. In terms of accountability, the Prime Minister came to the House of Commons and explained the position at the first opportunity. As I said in the Statement, he ensured that the leader of the Opposition was briefed, as we did in this House. There is a balance to be struck, but in no circumstances must we imperil our heroic service men and women by telegraphing and broadcasting what future operations may be. I assure my noble friend that operational security is fundamental.

However, she and the House can be assured that we are taking proportionate and deliberate action. My noble friend the Foreign Secretary wrote an article in the newspaper; I do not read them all, so I cannot remember which one it was—

The Daily Telegraph—a very important newspaper. He set out in precise and clear detail the extent to which the Government had gone to show and make sure that our action was proportionate and deliberate. We will continue to operate in that way, also protecting operational security.

My Lords, further to the initial point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, there is a trap of aggression leading to further escalation. I draw your Lordships’ attention to the views of a former US ambassador to Yemen, and now an American academic, published on Friday, in which he stated that the Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping were, in his assessment, designed to “provoke US retaliation”. Given that the domestic popularity of the Houthis was ebbing until the outbreak of hostilities in Israel/Gaza, and that they derive almost all their support from fostering a sense of anti-western grievance, what assessment has the Foreign Office made of this hypothesis that the Houthis have foreseen and deliberately provoked military reprisals?

No one should dispute, and certainly I do not, that our air strikes, which in the words of the Prime Minister were

“intended as a limited, single action”,

were proportionate and justified. But we must be mindful that we may have degraded Houthi offensive capabilities at the price of increasing their domestic political support. Can the Minister inform us what analysis has been undertaken in respect of the likely long-term political consequences of our actions, particularly within Yemen itself?

My Lords, I do not think that “aggression” is really an appropriate word to use in this respect. The United Kingdom, the United States and other nations involved have not undertaken any form of aggression. I think that if the noble Lord, with his great experience as a very distinguished Minister, had been faced with a situation where a British warship had been attacked by 20 drones and nine missiles, he might have asked himself whether some response would be appropriate. I think I said in this Statement, and repeated in earlier responses, that very careful and calibrated warnings have been given here. But with this aggression—if one wants to use that word; frankly, it is tantamount to a piratical attempt to interrupt the right of people all over the world to trade and move, and use the freedom of the seas—there is, as I said in the Statement, a cost to inaction. The Government’s judgment, and I believe the judgment of the House broadly, would be that not to have responded to that kind of attack, not only on one of our own warships, would have a cost. Were we to lose such a warship, having been targeted by 29 weapons, that would have been regarded as a disaster. We should remember that the Houthis have launched more than 25 attacks already on ships in the region, including those sailing under the British flag. This is not aggression; this is an act of self-defence and defence of international law.

My Lords, I am very reassured by much of what I have heard this evening, but I think there is a distinction between what is escalatory in intent and in effect. If the effect is escalation, how are the UK Government preparing or planning for a wider escalation? I am particularly concerned about the capacity of our Armed Forces. I am happy to be reassured, but often in this House we have questions about whether we have sufficient personnel, as well as equipment. Can the Minister give some assurance that we do have capacity, and that the implications of the 2023 integrated review might be revisited in the light of developments in the last few months?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate refers to the integrated review. Obviously, the integrated review refresh confirmed an additional £5 billion to the Ministry of Defence over the next two years. That followed a £24 billion four-year cash uplift in defence spending in 2020, which I think was the largest sustained increase since the Cold War. For the first time, our annual defence budget is over £50 billion. I do not think that is what is actually keeping the right reverend Prelate awake at night; I think he was asking whether we can be assured that our troops, airmen and sailors will receive the equipment and resources they need to meet whatever eventualities occur. The Government’s commitment is that the answer to that is yes. We are already letting contracts for the renewal of equipment, to ensure proper defence and support.

As far as escalation is concerned, I can only repeat what I said: the British Government and the international community have made it absolutely clear that they do not want escalatory action in this part of the world under any circumstances. However, we were confronted with the situation we were, with the Houthis firing on innocent commercial vessels. Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea increased 500% between November and December; then we saw the attack on warships. It is not the British Government or anyone else who have been escalating; we were faced with action to which we have made an appropriate, lawful and proportionate response.

My Lords, following on from the right reverend Prelate’s question, perhaps I might press the Lord Privy Seal a little further. While it is clearly right that this action was taken, and the fact that it was limited and proportionate is very welcome, we are seeing ever more military engagement, for all sorts of very pertinent reasons. We hear that the defence budget has been increased, and we have heard the figures. We have heard the further commitment to Ukraine; all those are welcome. But do we actually have the reassurance that we have sufficient personnel to man—person—our ships? In particular, do we have sufficient people working in the Navy, and is recruitment adequate, because there are some short-, medium- and long-term questions we need to be reassured about?

My Lords, we do have enough people. Not only do we have enough people, we have some of the most outstanding people in our nation, and I know that the noble Baroness would agree with me on that. Recruitment is always a challenge in any walk of life, and certainly in the Armed Forces. We are actively involved in recruitment and will continue to be so. I believe that serving our nation in the Armed Forces is a very high calling, and I am confident that we will be able to sustain the efforts to maintain our forces in the years ahead.

My Lords, the Statement mentioned that the performance of the Royal Air Force was supported by Australia and three other countries. That sort of support is very important to the crews, and I thoroughly encourage that as much of that sort of international support is obtained as is possible. Media reports suggested that France may have been approached but did not wish to support the RAF attack. Is there any truth in that?

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord, with his great experience, will know that I am not going into the individual stances of particular nations on particular events or operations. We are in constant discussion with not only the Government of France but other nations about the situation. France is an important ally. The noble and gallant Lord is absolutely right to refer to the brilliance of the operation—that is our early assessment of its effectiveness. Assessments are obviously continuing, but I think he would have been very proud, in his old career, of the effectiveness of the Air Force in the operation that it undertook.

The noble and gallant Lord is absolutely right as far as international support is concerned. We are very grateful to all the Governments involved in this operation. I mentioned Bahrain, the Netherlands and Australia—that partnership with Australia is obviously very important, but a range of nations were involved. He is absolutely right to say that this international co-operation is important. I am hearing that from all round the House. My noble friend the Foreign Secretary, the Defence Secretary, the Prime Minister and others are involved tirelessly in that operation.

My Lords, the Minister will recall that the Saudis have had many years of armed conflict with the Houthis. Now that the alliance of those who are opposed to the Houthis has been extended, would it not be helpful to ensure there is the largest possible co-operation and integration with the Saudis, both in military assets and intelligence matters?

My Lords, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an extraordinarily important player and actor in the field. The Prime Minister had a constructive and useful meeting there when he visited the region last year. He was very well received, as is my noble friend the Foreign Secretary when he goes there for grown-up, constructive, thoughtful talks about how we may secure long-term peace and prosperity for an area of the world where there should be peace and prosperity for all. That is our hope. We have agreed with the Government of Saudi Arabia to co-ordinate action on supporting regional security. The Prime Minister also discussed humanitarian aid for Gaza. My noble friend is absolutely right that the Gulf countries are important for our interests, particularly trade and investment, and energy and climate change. I can assure him that those dialogues continue.

My Lord, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the pilots of those four Typhoons, who undertook an astonishing, skilful and very courageous mission—an eight-hour return flight, including what must have been a very difficult attack. It is clear that the Houthis still retain a substantial store of potentially extremely dangerous and hazardous missiles. My noble friend has already quite properly said that he cannot forecast what might happen, but it is clear that we will not have done that much harm to their residual stocks.

My Lords, I think the Houthis have fewer missiles than they had before this operation took place, but my noble friend is absolutely right. Again, I am not going into operational matters and would not want to give the House any impression of what might or might not follow in any eventuality, but it is clearly a good thing if the Houthis’ capacity to take action is degraded. The real thing is that the Houthis should simply stop these attacks. Those who have influence over them—notably the Iranian Government, who support them—should tell them to stop, and they have been told that they should tell them to stop. That may be a naive aspiration, but that is the way to deal with the problem: stop it.

That is fortunate.

As we have heard, the action taken by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force was clearly both justified and necessary. Although the Prime Minister’s Statement is careful, for diplomatic reasons, to say that action was unrelated to other events in the Middle East, it clearly is related to the malign influence of Iran on the Houthis, as far as Hamas is concerned, and in the threat that Hezbollah poses to Israel on its northern border. As Israel confronts hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah missiles aimed at its northern border, with over 100,000 Israeli citizens evacuated and Hezbollah still not having pulled back above the Litani river, as required by UN Security Council Resolution 1701, what further pressure can western powers, including His Majesty’s Government, bring to bear on Iran to get the Hezbollah terrorists to cease and desist?

My Lords, it is quite clear that the behaviour of the Iranian regime, including the actions of the revolutionary guards, poses a significant threat to the safety and security of the United Kingdom and our allies. Indeed, Iran’s direct threats to dissidents in the UK are also concerning. There have been at least 15 credible threats by the regime against people in this country. We have sanctioned more than 400 Iranian individuals, but the noble Lord is quite right to say that, although Hamas alone was responsible for carrying out the attacks, Iran bears responsibility for the actions of groups such as those he has referred to and the Houthis, who it has long supported politically, financially and militarily. As I said earlier in my response, my noble friend the Foreign Secretary called his Iranian counterpart directly on 31 December and made it clear that Iran must use its influence with groups to prevent escalation, including in the Red Sea. We will hold Iran to account for any further escalation from these groups, which it continues to support. We will continue to work to disrupt Iranian activity, including attempts to smuggle to the Houthis, by working with our international partners in those operations.

My Lords, I remind your Lordships’ House of my interest as a serving member of the Armed Forces. To be clear, three tests need to be passed before we can have military action. The first is that it must be necessary, the second that there must be clear distinction between military and civilian targets, and the third that it must be proportionate. I am quite clear in my mind that we passed all three of those tests in this action and I give it my full support. Equally, I recognise that there is no connection to what is happening in Israel and Gaza. However, that view is not necessarily held by some in the region. I simply ask my noble friend to continue to argue the case that there is no link. My other concern is that, although we had lots of support in the region, not all our allies there were vocal in their support for this action. If we are to continue this possibility, can we please ensure that diplomatic effort continues so that we can get all of our allies singing from the same hymn sheet?

Absolutely so, my Lords. My noble friend and my other noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon are both very actively involved with this, along with the Foreign Secretary. Some people can say things in a place such as this House and say things publicly that maybe they cannot say in other forums. That may well be the case in diplomatic exchanges. However, I can assure your Lordships that few people support the disruptive and malign activities of the Iranian regime in seeking to destabilise an area of the world where we must spend all our efforts to bring stability and prevent escalation. That is our constant objective. I can promise my noble friend that we will certainly continue to make the distinction between protecting international shipping and the situation in Gaza, because that is the truth of the matter. As I said in my first response, the Houthis were firing on ships that had absolutely nothing to do with Israel. That is an activity which must cease.

My Lords, this is the 18th time I have asked a question on or raised Yemen in this Chamber in the past three and a half years. The first time I was referencing UK humanitarian and development support for Yemen, which was £235 million. It was justified by the Government—correctly—on the ground that the UK has a long-term interest in a more stable Yemen, with the kind of prosperity and human development to which the Leader referred. That £235 million has been cut by two-thirds over the intervening period, without an impact assessment being published by the Government, so the figure the Leader referred to is now less than one-third of what it was three and half years ago. What was the strategic case for that?

My Lords, Yemen has been through an extraordinarily difficult period of conflict and the noble Lord is quite right to bring the matter to your Lordships’ House, as have many other Members of this House. The United Kingdom Government have stood with the Yemeni people, and we continue to stand with the Yemeni people. As the noble Lord will know with his expertise in these matters, there has been a de facto settlement in some of the conflict in Lebanon, which Saudi Arabia has been involved with, and there is a good chance of a peace in which we could develop further humanitarian aid. Again, the Houthis should recognise that. Frankly, if you are worried about humanitarian aid, whether you are a Houthi or anybody else, firing on commercial shipping is about the worst thing you could do.

My Lords, I take just a moment to join the expressions from around your Lordships’ House of solidarity with the people of Ukraine. We should put on the record the world’s sadness at the death of the poet Maxim Kryvtsov, who died in the front line fighting to defend his country, Ukraine.

We are focused mostly on the significant military action conducted by UK forces in the Red Sea, which was obviously long planned and considered, which the Houthi forces must have been expecting and, indeed, have been deliberately inviting. Yet it is only days later that Parliament is debating the UK’s action. Can the Leader of the House assure us that, before any further action is considered—action that can only be escalatory—the House will be consulted and the Commons will have a vote on that action?

In view of the testimony cited by the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, and others about the concerns of experts that the Houthis may actually be strengthened by the UK and US action—indeed, the right reverend Prelate hit the nail on the head talking about the difference so often in UK foreign policy in the Middle East between intention and effect—can the Leader of the House tell me hand on heart that the US and UK Governments have a long-term plan for peace and stability for the region of the Red Sea and more broadly, rather than being drawn again into a conflict without any long-term plan? Given that today the death toll in Gaza has exceeded 24,000, will the UK Government call for a ceasefire now?

My Lords, I have referred to the British Government’s desire to see a sustainable ceasefire, but I have set out some of the conditions and the state in which that would happen. The noble Baroness forgets very quickly the bestial attack that was made on Israel by Hamas, and Hamas must be dealt with. I cannot give an assurance that there will be a vote before every action that is necessary, for the very precise reason that other noble Lord have said: we need to consider the operational security of our forces who are putting their lives on the line, in this case not only in self-defence in relation to attacks on them but also in upholding international law, about which the noble Baroness is often quite eloquent in this House. I find it disappointing that, when there is a flagrant breach of international law and Governments such as the Government of Australia, of which she has some knowledge, join us in taking action to deal with it, she is so churlish. No one wants war, but if those who peddle war get away without a response, history proves that the consequences are often dire.