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Military Interventions Overseas

Volume 835: debated on Thursday 25 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, following further airstrikes by the United Kingdom and United States against Houthis in Yemen, in what circumstances Parliament should be consulted before military interventions overseas.

My Lords, the Government have acknowledged the need to notify Parliament of significant military action either before or after the event. In regard to the recent air strikes in Yemen, on both occasions the Prime Minister updated the House of Commons and I updated your Lordships’ House at the earliest opportunity. Decisions on whether to consult Parliament in advance of military action reflect a number of factors including, critically, the security of our Armed Forces and that of our operational partners.

I am grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the House for that, for his Statement yesterday and for the updates that he describes. However, he will note that the Cabinet Manual that was published in 2011 by the then Prime Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, observed a developing constitutional convention for prior Commons consultation where possible. The noble Lord sets out moments when that might not be possible, but I wonder, given the relevant expertise from across this House, and given that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron—as he is now—is Foreign Secretary, whether this might be the place to look at reviving that constitutional convention and looking at checks and balances for moments even when the House of Commons may not be consulted.

My Lords, the Cabinet Manual is actually under review at the moment. The noble Baroness rightly refers to the 2011 manual, but even that says the convention would be observed

“except when there was an emergency and such action would not be appropriate”,

and there are occasions when it might not be appropriate. The Defence Secretary issued a Written Ministerial Statement in April 2016 that elaborated on the manual, and that is the Government’s position.

My Lords, does the Leader agree that His Majesty’s Armed Forces place great importance on having the support of the British people, not least expressed through their representatives in Parliament, for the difficult and dangerous actions that they carry out on their country’s behalf, but that at the same time they need to retain the elements of surprise and security that are essential not just to their success but to their safety, and that therefore a degree of flexibility is important in this regard?

I strongly agree with the point made by the noble and gallant Lord. I certainly agree with the first part—wherever possible, Parliament should be notified, involved and informed, and every Government of whatever colour should remember that they are stronger when they have the people’s Parliament behind them—but the second part of his intervention is paramount.

My Lords, during yesterday’s Statement, two noble and gallant Lords mentioned the situation regarding our aircraft carriers and security at RAF bases. Successive Secretaries of State for Defence have mentioned that the aircraft carriers are very much the Royal Navy’s spearhead, especially suitable for air strikes against terrorist targets. I do not expect my noble friend to tell the MoD what to do, but could he comment further and assure the House that the use of those carriers has not been ruled out?

My Lords, as I said yesterday, I will never speculate about operational decisions and the House would not expect me to. However, I will say that there have been a number of erroneous reports in relation to the aircraft carriers, but the Government are deploying the resources that they think appropriate for the circumstances.

My Lords, we on these Benches fully support both rounds of the Government’s targeted actions to diminish the Houthis’ ability to disrupt maritime navigation in the Red Sea, and I join all noble Lords in recognising the bravery and professionalism of our Armed Forces. We very much welcome the update to the legal advice that was given between the first round of attacks and the second. I ask the Lord Privy Seal to recognise the importance of keeping that legal advice up to date, particularly as developments occur that we cannot necessarily predict. I am grateful for that as it is extremely important.

My Lords, I welcome again the strong support of His Majesty’s loyal Opposition on this matter. Of course I own the responsibility to keep your Lordships’ House informed, including in this respect.

My Lords, notwithstanding the excellent question from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, with which I associate myself, is it not the case that Operation Prosperity Guardian—under the umbrella of the Combined Maritime Forces and Combined Task Force 153—now has strategic aims rather than responsive ones, as we would categorise an emergency. On that basis, there is a strong likelihood that British forces will continue to be needed to deployed and to carry out actions. On that basis, given the experience in this House, and indeed, as the Leader said, given the ongoing review of the Cabinet Manual, is it not time that we had a full debate in this House in particular so that we can discuss the Red Sea and the need for British deployments as well as the Cabinet guidance?

That matter was alluded to yesterday. I said we would reflect on these matters in the usual channels. There was a debate on the Red Sea situation in the other place. I pointed out yesterday that we have a debate tomorrow in your Lordships’ House on Ukraine, on which there has not been a debate recently in the other place. The Government will continue actively to consider the best ways of keeping both Houses informed and involved in these situations.

Following the actions of the Houthis in pursuance of their slogan, “Death to America, death to Israel and a curse on the Jews”, and given the recent protest in this country in support of that appalling organisation, is it not high time for the Government to bring before Parliament a Motion to proscribe the organisation as a terrorist group?

My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, we are sanctioning members of the Houthi organisation. I totally agree with his characterisation of the nature of that organisation, and I assure him that all these matters will continue to be kept under careful and constant review.

Does the Leader agree that, while the repugnant Houthi anti-Semitism and their attacks on the Red Sea vessels need a response, which we are rightly giving, none the less they are not the whole of the country of Yemen, which we know well. In the south, which is not the communist side, they are running out of water fast and will be the first people to be dehydrated completely. Would it not be wise, given the new investment in Hargeisa port and the potential for Aden port, for us to consider going back to the south of Yemen and seeing what we can do to help to repair their water drought?

I say to my noble friend that we discussed this briefly yesterday. We are engaged with the legitimate Government of Yemen, both bilaterally and through the United Nations. Those contacts will continue, and we very much have in mind the points that she has made.

My Lords, I too support these targeted strikes thus far, in the context of the strategy that the Government and the United States are engaged in, which, as has been explained to Parliament, is to degrade the capability of the Houthis to interfere with traffic in the way in which they did and to keep the seaways open, and, by that, to stop them targeting ships and to deter them. Six days ago, the President of the United States, asked whether the strikes were working, responded, “When you say working, are they stopping the Houthis?” He answered his own question and said, “No”. He then formulated another question to himself, saying: “Are they going to continue? Yes”. Parliament is entitled to be consulted on the strategy and to know what the endgame is and how that will be measured. At the very least, there should be a debate to deal with these issues.

My Lords, I think I have answered that question. I cannot claim personal responsibility for comments made by a head of state in any other country, however distinguished. I have set out our action with regard to the Houthis. It is in defence of free navigation and in self-defence in relation to Article 51 of the United Nations. That remains the position. I am not going to comment further on future potential operational activities.

My Lords, in responding to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and others, the Leader of the House said that the Cabinet Manual is under review, and referred to the 2011 date of the current version. That was of course written after a decade of public reaction and concern about what were seen as unwise military adventures and political decisions about war and peace. Can the Leader of the House assure me that we are not going to go backwards and have less democratic oversight of such decisions in the new version of the manual?

I can certainly assure the noble Baroness of that, but one has to remember what balance there is here. If we were to attempt to clarify more precisely circumstances in which we would consult Parliament before taking military action then, despite its desirability and necessity in those circumstances, we could and would, as the noble and gallant Lord pointed out, constrain the operational flexibility of the Armed Forces and prejudice the capability and effectiveness of those actions. That is the balanced position the Government are taking. As for democratic action, I do not see much democracy in the activity of the Houthis.