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Ukraine: Small Boats

Volume 837: debated on Wednesday 1 May 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government how many small boats impounded from illegal migrants they have in their possession, and whether they plan to grant requests from the Ukrainian authorities to contribute these to the Ukrainian war effort.

My Lords, no such request by the Ukrainian authorities has been received by the Home Office. These boats, which are not manufactured to commercial standards, are completely unsuitable for anything other than endangering those who use them. Border Force has seized and disposed of hundreds since 2018.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but I think it is ridiculous to tell the Ukrainians what is safe for them to use in the situation they are in. They want these boats because they are the only way they can get across the Dnipro to their bridgeheads on the other side, and ferry men and munitions in and the wounded out. The Ukrainian authorities have asked for them; I am afraid it is a mistake to say that they have not. The Ukrainian embassy asked for them twice in February, and I have heard today that the Ukrainian ministry of defence is about to ask for them again now. I find it very puzzling. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain why there is such reluctance to help—particularly as, at last, the American aid has come through—Ukraine get on the front foot, doing something incredibly brave, with these tiny boats, to get across the Dnipro and progress. They know more about what craft are seaworthy; they will repair these craft, because they need to—because they use them in matters of life and death.

My Lords, there are a number of questions there. First, just to repeat, the UK’s total committed military, humanitarian and economic support for Ukraine now amounts to almost £12.5 billion. As recently as 23 April, the Prime Minister announced that the UK will send our largest ever package of equipment from the UK, which is designed to help push back the Russian invasion on land, sea and air.

I go back to my initial Answer: these craft are unseaworthy. It is for us to determine their seaworthiness. They are built to extremely poor standards; they do not really even make it across the channel. They are not worth sending to Ukraine. As far as we are aware, the Ukrainian authorities have yet to ask for these boats. If they do, they should approach the Home Office and we will certainly come up with some other solutions.

My Lords, perhaps I could help the Minister, because the Times last Monday had the answer to some of the questions about how many boats the Home Office has impounded. There are

“20 rigid inflatables … 62 folded-up inflatables and 131 engines”.

The fact that they have made it over the channel and been impounded suggests that they were seaworthy at a certain point. If the Ukrainians want them, why on earth does the Home Office not allow them to have them? Why do we need to keep them? Surely it is a win-win situation simply to hand them over to the Ukrainians to enable them to use them on the Dnipro.

Far from being rigid inflatables, these boats more resemble oversized rubber tires—inner tubes. The engines on these things tend to be very underpowered; they are less than 30 horsepower. They are bolted to a plywood transom and riveted to the back of the boat. They are unsafe.

My Lords, assuming that the seized boats are not going to Ukraine, could my noble friend tell the House how quickly they are destroyed?

Some are kept for evidential and investigation reasons, but they are destroyed as quickly as possible. They are actually recycled; they are not put into landfill.

My Lords, a year ago I asked this same Question and I got the same Answer from the Minister. Does saying that the boats are not safe indicate that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has a role to play, in making sure that we can give boats to the poor people of Ukraine only if the MCA has approved it? It is nothing like crossing the channel to cross the river; it is a big river, but it is nothing like the channel. I know that the Swindon Humanitarian Aid Partnership is sending aid out all the time; it is taking buses and could take boats. It has said it can do it with no problem with security, but still the Minister rejects it. Could he think again?

No. I am rejecting it because these boats are unsafe. What I will do, however, is share a good news story from last week. The seventh convoy run by the National Fire Chiefs Council delivered to the border of Ukraine a large amount of the sort of aid that the noble Lord is describing, including 33 fire and rescue vehicles, two mechanics’ vehicles, an HGV carrying more than 2,800 items of surplus equipment, and 30 fire and rescue vehicles, including 20 fire engines, eight command units, an aerial ladder platform and a 4x4 LPP vehicle. That is practical help. I commend the 100 volunteers from all over the country who drove the fire services aid to the Ukrainian border. That is worth having. These boats are not.

My Lords, speaking as a simple sailor, none of those things float so they will not help the Ukrainians much on the Dnipro, will they? It seems extraordinary. Perhaps these things are unsafe, but can we not leave it to the Ukrainians to decide? If you are fighting for your survival, my goodness me, it is amazing what you can do. I would like to think that we could do the same if we were in that position, so why not let them do it? Is it because we are frightened of litigation against us? What is the reason, really?

I am very disappointed that the noble Lord the admiral does not support the Government’s position on this. An unsafe boat is an unsafe boat. He knows more about them—and ships, of course—than I do. The fact is that the Ukrainians, as far as we are aware, have not even asked for these things, so that judgment does not need to be made.

My Lords, I commend the Government’s efforts to support the people of Ukraine. Does my noble friend agree that we must do everything we can to try to protect the brave people of Ukraine when in many ways they are fighting on the front line for our own democracy? If there were a request from the Ukrainians for these boats, would his reply be different?

My reply would be that we should look into the appropriate sorts of boats that we should send as part of our aid. Again, to remind noble Lords about the type of aid, since the start of the conflict the UK has sent almost 400 different types of capabilities to Ukraine. If the Ukrainians asked for boats, we would certainly look at providing them, but not these.

My Lords, I visited Western Jet Foil just over a year ago, and I agree with Minister. I saw oversized rubber tyres which looked extremely dangerous, so I support the Minister in what he just said. I want to ask the Minister about the seizure of Russian assets. We have had the same answer from the Government on this question for a long time now. Will the Minister outline what concrete steps the Government are taking to access those assets for the benefit of the Ukrainian people?

I thank the noble Lord for his support for the Government’s position regarding the boats. On the seizure of Russian assets, I am afraid I am not more aware of the discussions than he will be from having read in the papers about what is going on at a very high level among the international community. I am sure that as soon as there is more to say on the subject, we will be back at the Dispatch Box.

Having listened to the conversation, I think the enthusiasm in your Lordships’ House to support Ukraine in any way that we can is highly commendable. After two and a half years of conflict, there is a now a highly mature system of gifting in kind from the UK to Ukraine based not on—dare I say?—bright ideas of what we think we have that they want but on what they need and what they request. If we simply start gifting everything that we think they want, rather than what they actually ask for, we are in danger of overburdening them with all sorts of kit they know not what to do with.

My noble friend makes an extremely good point. If there is a genuine request from the Ukrainian authorities to provide them with boats, we will absolutely look at it, and we will find the appropriate vehicles.

Can my noble friend clarify this? I understand that he is saying that there has been no request through the embassy here in the UK. Equally, the noble Lord, Lord Moore, said that there was a formal request in February. Could my noble friend, for the benefit of all of us here who feel quite strongly about this, double-check whether there was or was not such a request?

I say to my noble friend what I said earlier: no request has come to the Home Office, and, as far as I am aware, the same goes for the FCDO and the MoD. As far as I am concerned, there has been no meaningful request to the authorities which could provide the boats that are under discussion.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, asked about seizing Russian assets to use them to support the war effort by Ukraine. That idea came from the Foreign Secretary. He said it on a BBC programme and everyone else there said it was the most brilliant idea that had come from the United Kingdom, so I am surprised that there has been no further conversation. I happen to agree with the Foreign Secretary; he has his finger on the pulse. Is it not time that these assets were seized and used to help Ukraine to fight its war?

As I think I made clear, I do not disagree or otherwise with the noble and right reverend Lord. He makes a perfectly reasonable point, but the Foreign Secretary is having those discussions and I am not.