Situation in the Red Sea

– in the House of Commons am 3:41 pm ar 26 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence 3:41, 26 Chwefror 2024

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the recent response to Houthi aggression in the Red sea. Thirty years ago, the United Nations convention on the law of the sea came into force. That agreement was ratified by 168 nations and it states explicitly in article 17 that

“ships of all States, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea”.

Since 19 October the Houthis, aided and abetted by Iran, have launched a ruthless and reckless campaign of attacks against commercial shipping. These attacks are not solely limited to commerce; our military vessels are also in the Houthi crosshairs. The Royal Navy, the US Navy and most recently the French Navy have also been targets. Vessels owned by Chinese and Bulgarian companies and crews from India, Sri Lanka and Syria have been targeted indiscriminately, making a mockery of Houthi claims that this is all about Israel.

From the outset we have been clear that this cannot carry on. Freedom of navigation underpins not only our security but our prosperity. Around 80% of traded goods are carried over the seas, as are about 90% of the goods arriving in the United Kingdom. These necessities on which we depend arrive through a small number of critical waterways, so upholding these precious freedoms is essential for the preservation of life. This Government are determined to help restore the tranquillity of the Red sea. That is why the UK was one of the first members to join the US-led taskforce, Operation Prosperity Guardian, with HMS Richmond now taking over from HMS Diamond to patrol in the Red sea to help protect commercial shipping. It is why we are working in tandem with the US and other allies to reduce the Houthis’ capacity to harm our security and economic interest, to limit their impact on the flow of humanitarian aid, to prevent further regional escalation, and to show Iran in no uncertain terms that we will push back against its destabilising behaviour.

On occasion, in response to specific threats and in line with international law and the principle of self-defence, we have tackled the Houthi threat head-on. Since 11 January, we have conducted a number of precision strikes against Houthi targets. In these previous rounds of strikes, RAF aircraft successfully struck some 32 targets at six different locations, including drone ground control stations as well as other facilities directly involved in the Houthis’ drone and missile attacks on shipping. I am pleased to say that it remains the case that, to date, we have seen no evidence at all to indicate that the RAF strikes caused civilian casualties, and the UN has noted that it has observed no civilian impact arising from the RAF strikes.

Although we have eroded the Houthis’ capacity, their intent to prosecute indiscriminate attacks against innocent vessels remains undiminished. Just last week, MV Rubymar—a Belize-flagged, British-registered cargo vessel—was targeted in the gulf of Aden near the Bab al-Mandab strait. Hit by missiles, the crew were forced to abandon ship. An oil slick, caused entirely by damage sustained in the Houthi attack, now stretches many miles from the vessel. On Thursday, the British-registered MV Islander was similarly targeted. It was struck by two missiles, resulting in a fire on board. Fortunately, there was no loss of life.

This all comes not long after two US-registered bulk carriers, MV Navis Fortuna and MV Sea Champion, suffered minor damage from Houthi strikes. The attack on Sea Champion highlights the Houthis’ recklessness and near-sightedness, considering that Sea Champion has delivered humanitarian aid to Yemen 11 times in the past five years and was due to unload thousands of tonnes of much needed aid to the Yemeni people through the ports of Aden and Hodeidah. The Houthis’ attack was, quite simply, callous. As near-sighted as these attacks are, they continue to have serious and potentially long-term consequences across the region, as they cut off vital aid to civilians in Yemen and Syria, restrict crucial food imports to Djibouti and threaten significant impacts in Egypt.

Last time I spoke on this issue, I told the House that we will not hesitate to act again in self-defence. We have given the Houthis ample opportunity to de-escalate, but once again, the Houthi zealots have ignored our repeated warnings. As a result, we have once again taken action to defend ourselves against these intolerable attacks. On Saturday night, a Royal Air Force package of four Typhoons, supported by two Voyager tankers, joined US forces in a deliberate strike against Houthi military facilities in Yemen that have been conducting missile and drone attacks on commercial shipping and coalition naval forces in the Bab al-Mandab strait, the southern Red sea and the gulf of Aden. As the House knows, it was the fourth such operation to degrade the Houthi capabilities that are being used to threaten global trade in the Red sea.

Intelligence analysis indicates that the strikes were successful, and that the sites we attacked were being used by the long-range drones that the Houthis use for both reconnaissance and attack missions, including at a former surface-to-air missile battery site several miles north-east of Sana’a. Our aircraft used Paveway IV precision-guided munitions against the drones and their launchers. Assessment continues at this still early stage, but the analysis so far indicates that all eight RAF targets were successfully struck. Three buildings were hit at the Bani military site, and five one-way attack drones are assessed to have been destroyed at the Sana’a military site.

On planning these strikes, as is normal practice for the RAF, operations were carried out meticulously, and consideration was given to minimising any risk of causing civilian casualties. Assessments so far indicate that across the four sets of airstrikes, some 40 military targets have been hit, at seven different Houthi facilities. I pay tribute to the immense skill and tireless dedication of the men and women who made that possible.

Once again, I would like to make it clear that military action is only one aspect of our approach to the crisis in the Red sea. The whole international community has an interest in stopping these attacks, and we continue to work with it to turn that intent into action. The Prime Minister has engaged regional leaders, including the Sultan of Oman, as well as G7 partners. The Foreign Secretary and I have travelled repeatedly to the region in recent weeks to discuss regional security. We are determined to end the illegal flow of arms to the Houthis, using whatever levers are available, including enduring diplomatic engagement, and determined to continue to intercept illegal weapons and the shipping that helps to feed that supply. We are cutting off the Houthis’ financial resources, to further degrade their capacity to conduct attacks; for example, jointly with the US, we are sanctioning four Houthi leaders, and we will continue to work with the US to cut the flow of Houthi funds.

Despite the best efforts of the Houthis, we also continue to provide humanitarian help to people in the middle east. This year, we will send some £88 million of humanitarian support to Yemen, which will feed 100,000 Yeminis every month. The UK has recently worked closely with our Jordanian partners to airdrop life-saving supplies directly to the Tal al-Hawa Hospital in northern Gaza.

The Houthis could stop this barbaric behaviour any time they want. Instead, they callously choose to continue their reckless acts of aggression, causing harm not just to innocents, but to their own people in Yemen. Until they stop, we will continue to act, but consensus continues to grow that the Houthis’ violations simply cannot continue. That is why, recently, the European Union officially launched its Operation Aspides; Members will know that aspides meant “shield” in ancient Greek. We very much welcome the commitment of our EU partners to joining in the work that has been going on, because no nation should ever be able to threaten the arteries of global commerce.

Thirty years ago, nations of the world all came together to protect innocent passage on our high seas. Thirty years on, the House should be in no doubt whatsoever that we will continue to stand up for those rights, and do all that we can to defend life and limb of sailors everywhere, and to preserve their precious trading routes, on which we all depend. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 3:53, 26 Chwefror 2024

I thank the Defence Secretary for advance sight of his statement. We accept that the weekend’s airstrikes were legal, limited, and targeted to minimise the risk of civilian casualties. We pay tribute to the total professionalism of all forces personnel involved in the operations, which were conducted to protect shipping in the Red sea and uphold freedom of navigation for all nations. As the Defence Secretary said, the Houthis have been attacking ships of all nations: Chinese, Bulgarian and French ships have been targeted; Danish, Greek and UK ships have been hit; and even aid vessels destined for Yemen have been in the firing line. The UK and US Navies have been forced to shoot down drones in self-defence.

Today, the British Chambers of Commerce reports that more than half of British exporters are being hit by higher costs and delays because of the Houthi attacks. The Houthis are threatening international trade and maritime security, and putting civilian and military lives in serious danger. That is why the UN Security Council last month passed a resolution condemning the Houthis’ actions “in the strongest terms”, and demanding that their attacks cease.

We accept that the military action over the weekend was justified, but was it effective? What were the objectives for these latest strikes? Were they fully met? Were the targets at both Sana’a and Bani destroyed? Ministers have said that the aims of earlier strikes were, first, to deter Houthi attacks and, secondly, to degrade their capabilities, but deterrence does not feature in the weekend’s eight-nation joint statement in support of the strikes, and the Defence Secretary said this afternoon that “Houthi intent remains undiminished”. Has deterring attacks been dropped as one of the Government’s objectives for this military action?

As the Defence Secretary says, this was “the fourth such operation” since 11 January. When will the Government judge this to be a sustained campaign? At what stage do the Government think that Parliament needs a say? It is the Prime Minister’s responsibility to authorise UK military action and account for it to the public in this House. When will we hear from him?

Any military action against the Houthis must be reinforced by a diplomatic drive in the region aimed at stopping the flow of Iranian weapons, cutting off Houthi finances and settling the civil war in Yemen. What more can the Defence Secretary say about the Government’s wider action? We continue to back the Royal Navy’s role in defence of shipping from all nations through Operation Prosperity Guardian. How is that US-led taskforce co-ordinating with Operation Aspides, the European Union’s new naval presence in the Red sea?

Finally, I totally reject Houthi claims that firing missiles and drones at ships from around the world is somehow linked to the conflict in Gaza. Those attacks do absolutely nothing for the Palestinians, whose agonies are extreme. Last week, Parliament passed Labour’s motion calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. We all want: an end to the fighting, now; no ground offensive in Rafah; all hostages released; and aid to Gaza ramped up greatly. Let us come together this week to work for a ceasefire that is observed by all sides, and that can build into the political process that is needed if we are to secure lasting peace, through a two-state solution, for both Palestine and Israel.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. He asked a series of questions, and I will respond directly.

On effectiveness, we believe that this set of attacks was effective, and early reconnaissance shows as much, as I outlined in my statement. As ever, it will take a few days to get a full picture, but we have no reason to think that the action was not entirely successful.

We very much intend our attacks on Houthi infrastructure to be a deterrent. The Houthis think that they can continue their actions; our strikes will ensure that they understand the consequences of those actions and the price to pay for them, but perhaps other people, controlling other waterways, will also understand that the world will not simply stand back and allow those actions to take place.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about the Prime Minister coming to the House. I gently point out to him that, technically, he is wrong; the Defence Secretary has the legal authority to sign off actions, as part of royal prerogative. Legally, I have responsibility for the attacks, although, as he rightly points out, the Prime Minister came to the House to give the first two statements on them. As the message in each of those statements is similar and I have legal responsibility, it seems proper and right for me to come to the House and respond to questions. We have had very full statements after each round of attacks.

The shadow Defence Secretary is quite right to say that this sits within a much wider diplomatic context. I went into some detail in my comments, but I am happy to talk more about the wider work that is going on in the region to try to bring to a successful conclusion the wider conflict, which is, in my view—and I think I heard him say in his view—nothing to do with why the Houthis are attacking shipping in the Red sea.

Finally, I would just gently say—although many of the SNP are not here—that to claim that the House passed in full agreement a particular resolution last week is a little bit rich given the circumstances.

Photo of Jeremy Quin Jeremy Quin Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee

Open source information suggests that the strikes are diminishing the capability of the Houthis to attack international shipping. As that is both welcome and important, will the Secretary of State concur that that is also his assessment? It is welcome that Aspides and Prosperity Guardian are co-ordinating, but does that also include on the interdiction of weapons being smuggled from Iran into Yemen?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend is right that we are degrading—attrited, as they say in military terms—that capability. However, it is still the case that the Houthis are capable of launching attacks. To what extent? Well, the House will come to its own conclusions, but it will note that the gap between the first three rounds of attacks was relatively short, and that the gap between that and this fourth round has been longer. Again, we will wait to see what the response is.

On interdictions: yes, we will certainly continue to try to ensure that Iran is not resupplying. The single best message to go out from this House is that Iran should stop that activity. It is worth noting that it has been only Britain and the US that have been doing interdictions in the past few years—and, of course, we will continue to do so.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

First, let me thank the Secretary of State for due sight of his statement. I think that, as an opposition party, we would give it our tentative support. What the shadow Defence Secretary said about possible mission creep does give us concern, but I am sure that it is the role of the Opposition to keep asking those questions.

The Secretary of State knows that my last question regarding this issue was on the position of the People’s Republic of China. Until recently, exports between Europe and China were in excess of £400 billion a year, and there is no doubt that they will suffer as a result of the extended time that it takes to travel between China and Europe, but what beggars belief is China’s utter silence in relation to what is going on—notably, given that it has a military naval capacity in Djibouti.

The Secretary of State and I will disagree on the issue of Gaza. If we had secured a real vote last week, we would probably have seen that recorded formally in the House. Gerald M. Feierstein, the former US diplomat, has said that

“the Houthis’ effort to insert themselves into the Gaza conflict” is aimed at

“strengthening their support base in the country and cementing their movement more firmly in the… ‘axis of resistance’”.

I wonder whether, like me, the Secretary of State is concerned that we are not only strengthening that axis of resistance but, with illicit Chinese and Russian support, now broadening it in the Red sea.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I thank the hon. Member for his—as he has described it—tentative support. I have noted that the House has been largely unified on this issue during the past four statements, following previous attacks. He asks about the mission creep situation. I hope he feels reassured by the concept that we have waited longer, in part because the Houthis’ capabilities have been damaged, so that there is a longer gap and we do not see this thing speeding up. We have no intention or desire to see it increase, but we will act if there continue to be attacks on commercial and naval shipping.

The hon. Member asks about China and Russia and I have to say that I agree; it is important that countries that are impacted by this—the entire world, but perhaps China in particular—do speak up. We would welcome China being more vocal about the situation. As I mentioned in my comments, a Chinese vessel has been attacked, so this is of direct concern to the country. I call on China and, of course, Russia—for what it is worth—to be more vocal on these issues.

Lastly, I just do not accept this Gaza-Houthi connection. I remind the House that the Houthis were against Hamas until 2015, and now they arrive on the scene and pretend to support them. They are opportunist thugs taking advantage of the situation and of people’s lives and misery—not just in Gaza but in Yemen—and they should stop and desist immediately.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

The Secretary of State will recall that, in handling this topic on 5 February, he strongly endorsed the suggestion that a lot of this trouble in the middle east was linked to tactics to divert from the war in Ukraine. Given that the route from what is happening in Ukraine to what is happening in the middle east is via Russia and Iran, is he satisfied that there is no inconsistency between the tough line being taken by the Ministry of Defence against the Houthis and the soft line being taken by the Foreign Office against their Iranian sponsors?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I somewhat reject that characterisation. To be absolutely clear, we are very much of the view that Iran is responsible; it funds, trains and provides equipment to the Houthis and many other Iranian-sponsored proxies in the region. It is also the case that it has probably lost control of some of them. It is important that we deliver those messages in many different ways to the Iranians. I have seen the read-outs of the ways they have been delivered, including directly, by the Foreign Secretary—and they were anything but weak.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Llafur, Halton

I put to the Secretary of State a similar question to the one that I put to the Prime Minister on 23 January: of course we want a diplomatic solution—any ramping up of a military solution has its consequences—but for how many more months are the Secretary of State and the Government going to allow this to continue? Do the Government and the allies have a plan B?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

Of course, the whole world is working on the overall context of the middle east. I know the hon. Gentleman will have seen the reports over the weekend about the discussions taking place in relation to the hostages. We want a comprehensive settlement; the Government’s policy is, of course, a two-state solution. The middle east could be normalised in many ways, including through Saudi normalisation with Israel, as part of that broader package; the Government are working proactively on this. As I said, I am conscious that we should not link these thuggish pirates—

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Llafur, Halton

indicated dissent.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I am not saying the hon. Gentleman does that, but I am keen that we do not see the two issues as inextricably linked. I accept that the hon. Gentleman is not trying to do that. We are working very hard on the wider solution.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Ceidwadwyr, Bournemouth East

I welcome this statement and the Defence Secretary’s leadership. It is clear that the Houthi threat may last months, and it is right that Britain plays our role in protecting international shipping, but Typhoons are tasked from Cyprus only because our surface fleet cannot hit targets at range on land. I know the Defence Secretary is looking at a new vertical launch system to rectify that, but does he agree that an urgent operational requirement to introduce guided multiple launch rocket systems with the new precision-strike missile would allow our Royal Navy, already tasked to the Red sea, to help eliminate the Houthi threat?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

There are always good reasons to introduce new capabilities. In fact, I was recently down on HMS Somerset at Devonport, where a system is being fitted and trialled. It is not the case, as it is sometimes characterised, that we are using Typhoons because we do not have another option; our first preference is to work in this way for a range of reasons that I cannot enter into at the Dispatch Box. It is worth noting that when the US carried out actions in Iraq and Syria, its planes flew all the way from the United States, and I am not aware of anybody saying that that was because it did not have facilities closer to hand. We are using the correct facilities for the particular operation, notwithstanding the fact that it is always nice to have new facilities.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Llafur, North Durham

I agree with the Secretary of State that we must always think about our servicemen and women who carry out these tasks. As a former Defence Minister, it is news to me that it is up to the Defence Secretary to agree to any strikes, but perhaps this Defence Secretary has more power than his predecessors.

What is the policy and strategy behind this set of circumstances? I and a number of other Defence Committee members met the Defence Minister of Italy a few weeks ago in Rome. Italy is deploying to the region. How is it that this is now a US and UK-led operation? What are we doing to build alliances with Italy and other European nations that have an interest in doing so? As my hon. Friend Derek Twigg asked, what ultimately is plan B and the long-term endgame?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I will avoid getting into the constitutional position of how that authority runs. It would be inconceivable to do that without the Prime Minister, but it is technically the case that the royal prerogative runs to the Defence Secretary, for what it is worth.

I am very familiar with my friend Minister Crosetto, whom the right hon. Gentleman met in Rome. The Italians have, as he knows, opted to join Aspides, the EU operation. We will work closely with our European friends and allies to ensure that that interacts properly with the wider Prosperity Guardian and the direct actions that we are taking. Of course, we welcome action from other friends and allies in that regard.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Ceidwadwyr, Lichfield

I was very interested to hear the Secretary of State say that it is just the United Kingdom and the United States doing the interdiction to ensure that there is no rearmament of the Houthis, but what assessment has he made of the sources of that rearmament? What percentage does he think comes from Iran, through Syria, or through other agents?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

We are pretty certain that it all originates in Iran—[Interruption.] Actually, I have just been informed by my Parliamentary Private Secretary that actually there was also a French interdiction of some weapons in 2023, so let me put that correction on the record. To answer the question, I believe that it all originates from Iran. Which routes it takes in is another matter, but much of it comes ultimately by sea, and we continue to work proactively to ensure that we prevent those shipments whenever we can.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Llafur, Exeter

Will the Secretary of State answer the question asked by the shadow Defence Secretary, which he avoided earlier: now that this appears to be sustained operation, might a vote in this House be appropriate?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

We will continue to gauge the view of the House on these matters. I have noted that each party’s representative has—from tentatively to fully—supported these measured responses. If the rapidity or severity of the attacks increased, for example, my judgment at the moment would be that it is possible to read the mood of the House, but we will keep that under review and ensure that we continually come back to the House to provide defence intelligence briefings to Members who require them.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Ceidwadwyr, Chelmsford

According to a survey released by the British Chambers of Commerce, over half of British retailers and exporters have been impacted by the disruption in the Red sea, which is causing logistics delays, pushing up costs, and risking higher prices and fewer choices in British shops and elsewhere. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that our military action is consistent with the UK’s overarching aim of de-escalating tensions and restoring stability in the Red sea?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

Yes, I can absolutely provide that reassurance. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that the situation is already having a cost for British consumers. As I mentioned in my comments, globally about 80% of goods move by sea; for the United Kingdom, it is about 90%, given that we are an island. It is very important therefore to show, both for the purposes of deterrence and to weaken the Houthis’ ability to attack shipping, that we mean business when we say that this cannot carry on.

Photo of Apsana Begum Apsana Begum Llafur, Poplar and Limehouse

After four separate strikes in seven weeks, this appears to be a prolonged military campaign, so I ask the Minister again, as I did on 5 February: what is the long-term strategy, and how does this relate to the ongoing precarious situation in Yemen itself? If the Government’s plan is to sustain military action, will he speak to the Prime Minister to ensure that Parliament accordingly has a vote or a say, which is only right?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I hope the hon. Lady will join me in welcoming action against the Houthis, who have attacked a ship that—as I mentioned—has provided aid to the people of Yemen on multiple occasions. I know that she does not make this mistake, but some people think that the Houthis are somehow the Yemeni authorities. They are not; they are not the Government. They are destroying that country through their actions, and are actually preventing aid from getting to the people of Yemen, so it is absolutely right that we take this action.

To assure the hon. Lady, the previous three attacks were seven days apart or so; it has been a longer period this time. We have been able to wait longer, perhaps because the Houthis have fewer options to attack shipping, but I stress that we will continue if they carry on attacking shipping. The simplest thing for all of us to do is to send a clear, united message to the Houthis that they must stop attacking innocent shipping.

Photo of James Morris James Morris Assistant Whip

The Secretary of State is absolutely right to say that military action is necessary but not sufficient to deal with the long-term problem of the Houthis. He has mentioned the necessity of tackling financing and the illegal shipping of weapons, but global shipping is peculiarly vulnerable to cyber-attack. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that the UK’s cyber-capabilities are shared with our international partners to protect our global shipping interests?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

There are essentially two forms of warfare that my hon. Friend is pointing to: one is direct cyber-attack and the other is the use of electronic warfare to cause particular outcomes. I am afraid that we have seen a lot of that, particularly in the theatre in Ukraine, and we are very conscious of the way it is being used in the Red sea region as well. We will continue to do all we can to help through the Prosperity Guardian element of this operation, and to make sure that we are a step ahead of those who would, through preference, destroy the ability for world trade and good passage through open seas to take place.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

I assure the Minister that he has the full—not tentative—support of DUP Members for the actions he has taken, because as he has pointed out, what is happening will affect businesses and consumers in the UK through inflation and the inability to get supplies. However, those effects are not limited to the UK; almost every European nation relies on those shipping lanes being kept open. Why is it that we are doing the heavy lifting when it comes to attacking the Houthis, and other nations are not joining in?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

First, I am very grateful for the support of the right hon. Gentleman’s party. Secondly, two factors have to be in play in order to take action: the will to do it and the capability to do it. Quite a large number of nations are involved, either through Prosperity Guardian or direct support for the military action, which includes intelligence officers and other means of assistance—we are receiving support from a whole range of people. We now also have Operation Aspides, which the Europeans are launching. We look forward to seeing what they bring to this action, but I stress that it is our capability and willingness combined that means that the United Kingdom is able and willing to act when perhaps others are not.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Ceidwadwyr, Northampton North

Has my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary considered engaging with the currently unrecognised country of Somaliland? I visited it recently, as the Register of Members’ Financial Interests will show. As it has a border with the gulf of Aden, its port at Berbera might be useful to His Majesty’s Government.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I know that my right hon. and learned Friend is a big fan of Somaliland. I have visited it myself in the past, and I know that in a difficult environment, they do a very good job—administratively and otherwise —of trying to run their Government. I will take his comments away and confer with the Foreign Secretary.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I appreciate that the Secretary of State has come to the House on several occasions to give an update on this situation, and that further actions continue to be taken to avoid the Houthis disrupting Red sea shipping. The difficulty is that they appear not to be deterred by what the Government are throwing at them, following on from many years of being undeterred by attacks on them from the Saudi Government. In fact, they are using this as part of their propaganda machine against the west. So can I ask the Secretary of State: how does he see this ending?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I would say two things to the hon. Lady. First, as I have tried to stress before, I do think that this operation is having an impact. We have seen longer periods between attacks, and we have seen the Houthis’ abilities attrited, so they have fewer capabilities. That is certainly the case.

The second thing I would say—perhaps I should have said it sooner—in answer to what might bring this to an end is that the Houthis do want to get the peace deal they have in place with the Saudis ratified by the United Nations, which clearly will not ratify a peace deal between the two parties until they stop shooting at international shipping. I do think that there is an endgame in the Saudi-Houthi peace deal being signed off by the United Nations, but the onus remains on the Houthis to stop shooting at international shipping and disrupting its flow before they can get that and, indeed, the financial improvement to their own situation that will come from the deal being signed.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Ceidwadwyr, Rother Valley

Al-Jazeera has reported that, according to its numbers, 37,000 Houthis have been recruited since the start of the airstrikes, and they are using the airstrikes as a recruiting tool. Al-Jazeera believes that this is for a push on Ma’rib, which is full of natural resources. As we know, Ma’rib became a world heritage site in 2023. It is home to the ancient kingdom of Sheba, or Saba’, and also of the famous dam, which is mentioned in the Koran. What steps are the Government taking to make sure that that world heritage site is protected, and if the Houthis were to move into that area, would they step in to stop them destroying these essential historical and religious sites?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend raises a very important point, and if he does not mind, I will confer with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on this issue. On the membership point, the Houthis are made up of a ragtag of people who are often quite desperate and those who are led into a particular way of life with the Houthis. We want to dismantle that, and the best way to do it is through the peace deal that has been agreed, but that cannot be enacted by the UN until they stop firing on commercial shipping. We would like to see that situation unwound. I will take his other point away and come back to him.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

On 6 February —20 days ago—I tabled written question 13372, asking

“for what reason Israeli military planes have used UK airports on each occasion since 7 October 2023.”

That may or may not be relevant to this statement, but I do not know, because I have not yet received an answer. Can the Secretary of State either answer the question now, or tell me when I will receive a written answer?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I will certainly look into that for the hon. Member, but I would have thought that Israel uses UK airports for the purposes of flying El Al and other airlines to this country.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Ceidwadwyr, Buckingham

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and I support the necessary actions of self-defence to secure freedom of navigation in the Red sea. However, to keep the whole country on the same page and to understand the importance of this, I note that while the purpose of the actions is first and foremost to protect the people—the seafarers and the military personnel—on those vessels, the economic impact globally is huge, as has been referenced. Businesses are reporting to me a threefold or fourfold increase in shipping costs, which of course we will all pay for at the tills. In conjunction with the Treasury and the Department for Business and Trade, has my right hon. Friend made an assessment of the magnitude of the figure that the challenge to freedom of navigation in the Red sea is causing to our economy and the global economy?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this has a cost not just to business or industry, but to households in this country. It will come straight through to the bill for the weekly shop, which is why it is so important that we do not allow these attacks to go unchallenged and that we make sure we degrade the ability for them take place. He asked about the ongoing assessments by the Department for Business and Trade and the Treasury, and provided some data from his own knowledge about the increased shipping costs. Shipping is typically not an enormous part of the cost of each individual item people buy in the supermarket, but of course over a period time, that will have a negative impact, which is why it is important to make it clear that freedom of navigation is sacrosanct and that we will always take action if it is affected in any way, shape or form.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I very much support what he is doing and his strength of character and purpose, and as my right hon. Friend Sammy Wilson said, we are very much on the same page. With joint strikes with our allies ongoing, it is clear that support for the Houthis is still making its way from the axis of evil to enable them to carry on with persistent threats and attacks. The Houthis continue their attacks, so what discussions have taken place with our allies to ascertain what the next steps to secure the route will be? How quickly can those steps be taken to secure the sea routes and trade for all countries across the world?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his party’s support on this. He will be interested to hear that I had extensive discussions last week both at NATO in Brussels and at the Munich security conference on exactly the issues he has raised. A broad range of international discussion is going on, and we all want to see the Houthis stop and to have a wider settlement with Saudi. There is no excuse that is plausible for the action being taken, and common sense would say that China, and even Russia, would be piling on the pressure to do that. We will carry on working internationally with our partners, and with those in the P5, to try to ensure that happens.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The written question I referred to was about Israeli military aircraft—I think the Secretary of State might have misunderstood, or I might not have spoken clearly. I would appreciate an answer to that written question as soon as he can give it.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I shall ensure that that answer is forthcoming.