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Parliamentary and Political Monitoring Report w/c 26th October 2015

Published: 30/10/2015

This week’s main UK security and defence news has been the warning from Andrew Parker, Director General of MI5, that Islamic State terrorists are planning mass casualty attacks in Britain. The Daily Telegraph reports that he also publicly admitted for the first time that MI5 has carried out computer hacking attacks against terror networks to crack their communications. Delivering the Lord Mayor of London’s annual defence and security lecture, he also stated that the current level of threat was the highest he had seen in a career spanning 32 years. Mr Parker said four-fifths of the 4,000-strong agency’s resources were directed at stopping terrorist attacks, with an increasing proportion of them linked to Syria and the Islamic State. In the past 12 months his agency has thwarted six terror plots in the UK and another seven abroad, he claimed, adding: "We are seeing plots against the UK directed by terrorists in Syria; enabled through contacts with terrorists in Syria; and inspired online by the Islamic State’s sophisticated exploitation of technology.”

While the rise of the Islamic State had dominated the headlines, he also said there was still a threat from al-Qaeda terrorists, who are also planning attacks in the UK. 

Mr Parker's intervention - whilst no doubt factually accurate - must also be seen in the context of the expected publication next week of a new 'Investigatory Powers Bill' that is designed to grant the intelligence services wide-ranging legal abilities to intercept communications data and the right to access the email history of suspects.

Contents

Labour to support spending two per cent of GDP on defence

The Independent reports that Labour has committed to spending two per cent of UK GDP on defence. Shadow Defence Minister Rachael Maskell revealed the Party’s policy in a parliamentary debate on defence expenditure in the House of Commons. “It is the first duty of any government to ensure that we have the capacity and capability to defend against current and future threats,” she said. Ms Maskell added: “Our party is committed to the principle of spending a minimum of two per cent [of GDP] on defence with the modern capabilities to ensure our nation’s future.” She was speaking in a debate on a private member’s bill tabled by Conservative MP Sir Gerald Howarth, which calls for the two per cent figure to be put into law. It is unlikely to pass, as it lacks Government support.

Ms Maskell accused the Government of redefining parts of defence spending to count towards the target and claimed that it was not really committed to achieving it. She said previous Labour governments had spent more than two per cent of GDP on defence and that the target had only been put at risk since 2010.

Ms Maskell also added that Labour’s policy on Trident would be decided by an evidence-based defence policy review being conducted by the Party. However, The Guardian subsequently reported that Jeremy Corbyn has backed calls for the Scottish Labour party to vote against the renewal of Trident, despite warnings it could widen an already deep rift within the party.

George Osborne pledged to meet the NATO defence spending target in his July 2015 budget, committing “additional resources” to raise the defence budget 0.5 per cent above inflation each year. However, he has received criticism for attempting to change the manner in which defence spending is calculated.

UK to extend deployment in Afghanistan

The Guardian reports that the 450 troops Britain has stationed in Afghanistan are to remain for another year amid deteriorating security in the country. David Cameron withdrew all combat troops in 2014 after thirteen years of fighting the Taliban, but the support mission stayed on to train domestic forces. In a statement to Parliament, Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, confirmed the troops would remain throughout 2016. It comes after President Barack Obama delayed the departure of the US from Afghanistan, saying a force of 5,500 would stay beyond the end of his term of office in 2017.

Mr Fallon said UK forces were only performing non-combat roles, including mentoring instructors at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy. “The UK government recognised it would take time for the ANDSF [Afghan national defence and security forces] to develop into a fully-fledged fighting force capable of providing complete security for the people of Afghanistan,” he said.

Iraq inquiry to be published in June or July of 2016

The Daily Telegraph reports that the Iraq Inquiry will be published in the summer of 2016, Sir John Chilcot has revealed. In a letter published on the inquiry’s website, Sir John said that the report will be released in June or July next year. The announcement comes after months of anger over the report’s long delays and criticism of Sir John’s handling of the inquiry, which was launched in 2009. It is understood that the summer 2016 date named by Sir John will be the point when the public can read his report and will come after any vetting procedures needed. His statement said that the text of the report, which will be over two million words in length, should be complete in April 2016.

Veterans rally to demand retrial of jailed Royal Marine

The Evening Standard reports that hundreds of campaigners gathered outside Parliament this week in solidarity with a former Marine who was convicted of murdering an Afghan insurgent. Sergeant Alexander Blackman, 41, was given a life sentence two years ago for the killing of a captive in Helmand province in September 2011. His punishment was reduced to eight years following a challenge in the Court Martial Appeal Court, but campaigners have demanded a retrial. Blackman's supporters say he believed the insurgent was already dead and that he has been the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice. However, footage from a colleague's helmet-mounted camera showing Blackman quoting Shakespeare before he shot the insurgent at close range with a 9mm pistol would appear to indicate otherwise.

Britain's failure to strike Syria encouraged Putin in Crimea, says former NATO Secretary General

The Daily Telegraph reports that a former head of NATO has claimed Parliament’s 2013 decision not to launch air strikes on Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria was a “huge own goal” that helped embolden Vladimir Putin to annex Crimea. Lord Robertson of Port Ellen said the West’s failure to take action against the Syrian dictator even after he breached the “red line” of using chemical weapons, was a “declaration of weakness” that encouraged the Russian President. In a speech in London discussing the Government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), he claimed a lack of political will to act risked undermining British policy and security. He said: “All the analysis in the world, all the equipment, all the technology, all the highly trained men and women in uniform – none of that is of any utility if the political will to take action is not there.”

Controversy over use of Swedish steel in new UK ships and armoured vehicle

The Daily Mirror reports that the Government has snubbed British steel for two major defence projects worth billions of pounds. The contracts - a £348million deal for three new Royal Navy ships and a £3.5billion order for 589 Scout Specialist Vehicles - will use imported foreign steel from Sweden rather than supporting the crisis-hit UK industry. Shadow Defence Minister Kevan Jones, who uncovered the Swedish deals, accused the Government of letting down Britain’s steelworkers. Meanwhile, Business Secretary Sajid Javid will hold talks in Brussels aimed at speeding up rule changes which would allow governments to back national industries. He will urge EU commissioners to approve a crucial compensation package, but must convince them it does not breach “state aid” competition rules.

Compulsory severance rejected by NPCC

Police Professional reports that chief police officers have decided against introducing compulsory severance, but have reserved the right to reconsider the decision following next month’s Spending Review announcement. The issue was included in a paper put forward by national lead for reward and recognition, Chief Constable Francis Habgood, for discussion at a National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) meeting on Tuesday (October 27), following concerns among some chief officers that upcoming Government spending cuts of 25 to 40 per cent will exceed any possible savings made by alternative means.

However, NPCC chair Chief Constable Sara Thornton said: “Chief constables’ preferred approach is to continue to modernise terms and conditions of both officers and staff. On the information known at this stage, chief constables are not seeking to revisit the Police Arbitration Tribunal decision on compulsory severance from 2014. This position might need to be reviewed in response to the police settlement in the Spending Review.”

Senior officers suggest police on beat could be coming to an end

The BBC reports that two of the country's most senior police officers have signalled that the era of routine patrols by "bobbies on the beat" has come to an end. The comments have been made by the chairwoman of the NPCC, Chief Constable Sara Thornton, and Craig Mackey, the Deputy Commissioner of the Met Police. They said funding cuts would lead to a transformation in investigating crime. The police service does not have a ring-fenced budget and has been told to expect a 25 per cent to 40 per cent reduction in funding in November's Spending Review. In an interview with BBC Newsnight, Mr Mackey said the Met was anticipating a £1bn cut in funding, which could lead to up to 8,000 job losses - a quarter of the force. 

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