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Gifting of Equipment (Syria Civil Defence and Free Syrian Police)

Volume 612: debated on Wednesday 29 June 2016

It is the normal practice when a Government Department proposes to make a gift of a value exceeding £300,000, for the Department concerned to present to the House of Commons a minute giving particulars of the gift and explaining the circumstances; and to refrain from making the gift until 14 parliamentary sitting days after the issue of the minute, except in cases of special urgency.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has today laid a departmental minute proposing the gifting of equipment to Syria Civil Defence and Free Syria Police teams.

The situation in Syria remains extremely fragile. An estimated 250,000 people have been killed since the war began five years ago, many of them innocent civilians. The Assad regime continues to use the most barbaric military methods and tactics available, including the use of indiscriminate artillery fire, chemical weapons and barrel bombs. The UK remains committed to doing all it can to promote a political settlement to end the conflict, to alleviate the humanitarian suffering, and to protect UK national security through countering terrorist and extremist threats.

In March 2015, I laid departmental minutes before the House and issued written statements setting out our plans to gift equipment to Syria Civil Defence and the Free Syrian Police teams operating in opposition-controlled areas of Syria. No objections were received to the gifts and the UK distributed the equipment to both sets of teams along with comprehensive training packages. Civil defence teams have now saved over 50,000 lives by rescuing civilians trapped in damaged buildings, fighting fires and providing emergency first aid. The Free Syrian Police continues its valuable work to keep traffic moving, prevent looting and to support the distribution of humanitarian aid. Other international donors have also contributed to both initiatives.

The UK intends to continue its support to these programmes by increasing their communications capability and mobility of the teams, providing more targeted operational equipment—whether for search and rescue, or tracing explosives—as well as build up the capacity of these organisations to deliver on the ground. The departmental minute laid today sets out our proposal to gift £4 million in equipment to Syria Civil Defence and £4 million in equipment to those operating within the Free Syrian Police. For Syria Civil Defence, the proposed list of equipment includes cutting and rescue tools, personal protective gear including helmets, uniforms, communications equipment, medical supplies, equipment for the disposal of unexploded ordinance, office supplies, vehicles and fire-fighting equipment. For the Free Syrian Police, the proposed list of equipment includes vehicles, communications kit, traffic signs and cones, uniforms and generators. We expect to spend £23.5 million this financial year on both programmes of support in total through the Government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF).

The use of CSSF funds to cover the costs of the gift has been approved by members of the Middle East and North Africa strategic programme board. The gift is being scrutinised to ensure that the provision of this equipment is consistent with export controls and complies with our international obligations. Recipients have been carefully selected to prevent equipment being given to those involved in extremist activities or human rights violations. The risk of diversion is still a real possibility, but we assess that the considerable benefit this equipment would bring to the moderate opposition in Syria greatly outweigh this risk, which we have plans in place to mitigate. There is constant monitoring of the situation on ground, and all equipment transfers are approved by Her Majesty’s Government immediately before delivery. All our assistance is carefully calibrated and legal, is aimed at alleviating human suffering and supporting moderate groups and is regularly monitored and evaluated.

The Treasury has approved the proposal in principle. If, during the period of 14 parliamentary sitting days beginning on the date on which the departmental minute was laid before the House of Commons, a Member signifies an objection by giving notice of a parliamentary question or a motion relating to the minute, or by otherwise raising the matter in the House, final approval of the gift will be withheld pending an examination of the objection.