In recent days, two issues have been dominant in Parliament – on the home front the Sub-postmasters ‘Horizon’ scandal, and overseas, the decision by the UK Government to deploy RAF fighters against the Houthis in Yemen. Of course, we’ve also had plenty of South Suffolk households affected by flooding, as for the time being we seem to be gripped by a very damp winter rather than a particularly cold one.
There is no doubt that the decision to deploy lethal force is about the most important any Government can take – it’s a big deal for the Department where I am a Minister, the Ministry of Defence; but particularly so for our Prime Minister, who must ultimately shoulder the burden of the decision, in consultation with his Cabinet. For me, whilst there is always a debate when the military are deployed around issues such as whether to vote in Parliament – and that there will inevitably be those who oppose the use of any force outright – we should remember the simple facts of the case.
When we deployed Typhoon jets to carry out targeted and proportionate strikes on Houthi hardware, so as to degrade their ability to attack Red Sea shipping, this was ultimately an act of self-defence. At the time of writing the Houthis had carried out 26 attacks on ships of varying nationalities since November. These unjustified and indiscriminate bombardments threatened the lives of those working on ships in the Red Sea, and by forcing commercial cargo to travel far further distances to avoid the situation, have potentially reignited the very inflation which caused our Cost of Living challenge. Most importantly, the Houthis’ actions culminated in an attack on HMS Diamond, a Royal Navy destroyer sent to the Red Sea to the join the international effort to protect shipping and freedom of navigation.
What Government could fail to respond to attacks on its own Navy? In my view, had we not shown resolve in the face of Houthi aggression, we would have been sending the message that they were free to act with impunity, with no consequence for their wanton violence – bearing in mind that success in their terms could have meant sinking vessels and causing significant loss of life. As it is, by conducting the targeted action that we did, we instead sent the message that such attacks could not go on without a response.
In writing this, I appreciate that many of you will be anxious about the wider international scene. Yet, inaction would carry risks too - emboldening the Houthis to continue their aggressive acts. That said, there is no doubt that we face great challenges internationally.
At the same time as instructing the Royal Air Force to join the USA on the mission against select Houthi targets, the Prime Minister also visited Ukraine, announcing another very significant package of financial support. Again, there may be some – I hope not many – who at least question this and ask if it is really worth it. Once more, not supporting Ukraine would carry enormous risk – emboldening Putin and other potential adversaries of the United Kingdom and our allies. I passionately believe that if Britain were to relent in its staunch support for Ukraine, this would send the most damaging message possible, given our leadership to date. We have to be in this for the long haul – unchecked and aggressive despotism in Europe is not normally a phenomenon that ends well.
Back home, I’ve been incredibly moved by the collective sense of anger at the fate of the ‘Horizon’ sub-postmasters. I appreciate that people will feel as if it has taken a TV programme to move Government to action. Yet I would stress the huge amount of effort going on across Government prior to the drama hitting our screens.
We’ve already paid around £200m in compensation to 2,700 victims and announced significantly more compensation for victims going forward. In particular, last week we confirmed that legislation would be introduced in the coming weeks to exonerate all those found guilty as a result of the Horizon scandal. At the same time, for the many wider issues – e.g. the role of IT contractors – there is a public enquiry looking at all these matters, launched back in February 2020.
Let us hope that we can deliver closure for those who have unjustly had their lives turned upside down by Horizon. At a time of heightened international tension, I will certainly be doing all I can to ensure that we nevertheless remain as focused as possible on the home front.
Published in the Suffolk Free Press.