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Parliamentary and Political Monitoring Report w/c 19th October 2015

Published: 23/10/2015

This week’s main UK security and defence development has been the news that taxpayers are facing a bill of almost £150 million to defend British soldiers who are being sued by enemy fighters for breaching their human rights. The Daily Telegraph reports that more than 2,000 separate compensation claims and judicial review cases have been prepared by lawyers in the aftermath of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Suspected Taliban bomb-makers and insurgents captured by British troops on the battlefield are among those who have begun legal action against the Government.

Now ministers have ordered changes to be made to prevent such action. One senior government figure reportedly said: “We are absolutely determined to close down these outrageous legal challenges. Detailed work has begun. It will take time, but we are determined to tackle this.” The plan being drawn up in Whitehall, disclosed by senior figures to The Daily Telegraph, includes:

  • Pulling out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR): ministers could declare a temporary withdrawal from the ECHR, before sending British forces into action in future
  • Taking legal action against law firms that have brought bogus cases against the Armed Forces
  • New laws to allow the Government to recover the costs of bogus judicial reviews.
  • A time limit on legal action to stop compensation claims being made years after incidents occurred: further reforms would end legal aid for claimants who are living outside the UK
  • A new Bill of Rights: Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, is working on a British Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act - this would include safeguards for the Armed Forces to protect them from being sued.

Since 2004, the MoD has spent some £100 million on Iraq-related investigations and compensation. MoD officials said a further £44 million had been set aside to deal with further claims expected from human rights law firms acting for Iraqis between now and 2019.

Contents

Threat of terrorist drones to be countered in defence review

The Daily Telegraph reports that Britain’s Armed Forces could be equipped to defeat terrorist drone attacks. The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) into how the MoD should defend Britain is looking at how to provide “counter measures” to the threat of terrorists using remotely-piloted aircraft in attacks, a minister said. Security experts have warned drones could be turned into flying bombs by being hitched to homemade explosives, or could even carry payloads of chemical and biological weapons. Research led by a former director of Britain’s electronic eavesdropping agency, GCHQ, last year warned shopping centres, sporting occasions and rallies could all be vulnerable.

Major targets for any terrorist drone strike would likely be public buildings and military facilities that are too heavily defended at ground level for a conventional gun or bomb attack. An incident in the US near the White House earlier this year, which saw a drone crash into the grounds of the building, highlighted the vulnerability of even the most secure locations.

New laws to allow intelligences services access to people’s smartphones and computers

The Daily Telegraph reports that new laws will allow spies in Britain to hack people’s smartphones and computers. The Investigatory Powers Bill, due to be outlined next month, will give greater powers to MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, permitting them to take control over electronic devices and access all documents and photographs. The news comes days after David Cameron announced a counter-terrorism strategy including a review into whether Islamist extremists have infiltrated the NHS, the civil service, local authorities and the country’s education system. But with the new law in place, intelligence agents will be able to access anyone’s phone, install software and track potential criminals. After obtaining a warrant from the Home Secretary, agents will be able to interrupt communications as they happen, take photographs of targets and listen in on phone conversations.

George Osborne demands welfare cuts to pay for national security

The Financial Times reports that Chancellor George Osborne is demanding further cuts to welfare spending - including disability benefits - at the same time as seeking to protect key aspects of national security in next month’s Spending Review. The Chancellor is seeking £20bn of further savings in real terms by 2019-20 and has run into opposition from Home Secretary Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who claim the cuts will hit security.

Those close to the Spending Review say that Mr Osborne has some sympathy with their position and is anxious to protect policing, border security and counterterrorism work. To help maintain that work, Mr Osborne wants to reduce spending on disability benefits and jobcentres. But such cuts will be tricky, with some Conservative MPs already urging Mr Osborne to tweak his tax credit changes before they come into force next April. Mr Osborne has asked his cabinet colleagues whose departments are not protected to model cuts of 25 and 40 per cent.

Migrants land near RAF base in Sovereign Base Area of Cyprus

The Daily Telegraph reports that up to four boatloads of migrants have come ashore at a British military base on Cyprus - the first time since the crisis began that migrants have landed directly on what is considered British sovereign soil. Vessels carrying the migrants, including children, were spotted off RAF Akrotiri and intercepted before the passengers were brought ashore. The RAF base on a spur of land on the island's southern coast is the launch-pad for Britain's air war against Islamic State targets in northern Iraq. The MoD in London said there were around 140 people on the boats. "We have not established where they are from yet," a spokesman for the bases said, adding: "We have had an agreement in place with the Republic of Cyprus since 2003 to ensure that the Cypriot authorities take responsibility in circumstances like this."

MoD under fire for listing retired jets and grounded helicopters in new list of military assets

The Daily Telegraph reports that the MoD has been ridiculed for listing retired jets, grounded helicopters and ageing tanks in its latest list of Britain's military assets. The official inventory of current military hardware includes five vintage FH70 howitzers that are housed in museums, seven Jet Provost trainers that came into service to train pilots for the 1956 Suez Crisis and were officially retired in 1993, and four Wessex helicopters, a model famed for its service during the 1982 Falklands conflict that has also been grounded.

The Defence in Numbers briefing document, released last week, includes an introduction from Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, stating that it "provides the key information on UK defence". An MoD spokesperson said the document was "intended to provide a snapshot" of the UK's defence capability and that the "vast majority" of the equipment was "in service and deployable".

US pilot killed in RAF Lakenheath air crash

The BBC reports that a US Marine Corps pilot has died in an FA-18 jet crash, close to an RAF base. The Hornet aircraft, which had taken off from RAF Lakenheath but was not connected to the base, crashed four miles from RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk. The pilot was the only crew member, police said. The aircraft was part of a fleet of six fighter jets due to fly to California, the US Air Force said. The remaining five FA-18 Hornets safely diverted to RAF Lossiemouth airfield in Moray. The aircraft had been en-route from Bahrain and were scheduled to fly to their base in Miramar.

Some police forces ‘too inefficient’ to manage further cuts, claims HM Inspectorate

The BBC reports that the police watchdog has warned that some police forces in England and Wales may not be able to withstand further cuts because they are not efficient enough. HM Inspectorate of Constabulary said even efficient forces could approach a state of "uncertain sustainability". It is not clear what would happen if a force became unsustainable, but merging with another force is one option.

The HMIC report said forces were planning to reduce spending by 15 per cent by 2018 and shed at least 12,000 posts - including those of 7,400 officers and 1,300 community support officers. It found financial planning varied considerably from force to force, but most had a "weak understanding" of the future demand for police services.

Intelligence services to scrutinise China-funded UK nuclear plant

The Times reports that British spies will scrutinise computer systems and cybersecurity at nuclear plants built by Chinese companies, amid fears that Beijing could use new commercial deals to threaten the UK’s national security.  The role of the listening station GCHQ in protecting Britain’s energy network from cyber-attack was confirmed as China’s President Xi conducted a four-day state visit hailed by David Cameron as the start of a “golden era” in Britain’s relationship with Beijing.

China is still seen as a serious threat to British interests, especially in cyber-espionage, and ministers are seeking to allay fears over its involvement in a key element of the national infrastructure. Security sources said that the Treasury was driving the deal and ignoring legitimate concerns, including fears that “trapdoors” could be secreted in software to enable Beijing to seize control of a nuclear plant if diplomatic relationships were to break down. 

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