Are British ministers consistently misleading parliament on their Middle East policy?

By Mark Curtis

Published in Middle East Eye, 17 May 2018


Two British ministers have recently been forced to resign for misleading parliament. Last month, Home Secretary Amber Rudd resigned, saying she had mistakenly misled parliament over whether her department had targets for deporting illegal immigrants.

Last December, Damian Green, who was effectively Theresa May’s deputy prime minister, was sacked after an inquiry found he had made “inaccurate and misleading” statements about pornography found on his office computer in 2008.

Misleading parliament on Syria and Yemen

The UK ministerial code, which Green breached, is very clear. It states: “It is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the prime minister.”

Yet if this is true, it is a wonder that many British ministers are still in post given their consistently misleading parliament on policies in the Middle East. This is not some technical problem – it is about the very nature of the British political system and whether Britain is in reality more a secretive, authoritarian state than a democratic one.

On 8 March, in response to a parliamentary question by Baroness Cox, Foreign Office Minister Lord Ahmad wrote: “In Syria, our military role in the Global Coalition is limited to air strikes to support partner forces on the ground.” Yet three weeks later, the media reported the death of a British soldier fighting Islamic State in Syria. Baroness Cox asked how this new information could be reconciled with Ahmad’s statement of 8 March.

Responding to this, Defence Minister Earl Howe stated that the reason was that the soldier “was embedded with US forces”. The answer given by Ahmad had obviously been misleading.

Last month, Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle asked the government which armed Syrian opposition groups the UK has trained since 2012. The government’s reply inferred that it had only trained the Syrian opposition from 2015, for operations against Islamic State. Yet media reports suggest that British training had begun in 2012 and was mainly for operations against the Assad regime.

Withholding information on Britain’s current wars goes back years. In July 2015, Defence Minister Earl Howe told Parliament that the government “would seek further Parliamentary approval before UK aircraft conducted air strikes in Syria”. This was untrue – British aircraft were already secretly striking Islamic State targets in Syria.

Britain’s war in Yemen is shrouded in similar obfuscation. Ministers consistently claim the UK is “not a party” to the war and “are not directly involved in the Saudi-led Coalition’s operations in Yemen”. These claims are nonsense: Britain is arming, advising and training the Saudis and is maintaining their aircraft bombing Yemen.

Exhausting the non-military options?

It is not just covert operations which are being covered up. Consider the process leading up to the UK-US airstrikes against Syria on 14 April, supposedly to deter the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons. Lord Ahmad told parliament that the decision to bomb Syria “was only taken because all non-military options had been exhausted”. However, the record of the UN Security Council discussion before the air strikes provides another picture.

On 10 April, the Security Council discussed different draft resolutions in an attempt to establish an investigation into the use of chemicals in Syria. The first draft resolution, presented by the US, would have established a UN mechanism for a year to identify those responsible for using chemical weapons: this was vetoed by Russia.

Then Russia presented a counter-proposal to establish a similar independent mechanism that would also have used evidence collected by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) fact-finding mission. This proposal, which was vetoed by the US and UK, was weaker than the US one since it would not have clearly ascribed responsibility to the Security Council for identifying those responsible for using chemical weapons.

But it did provide a basis on which an investigation could have been undertaken or further discussed.

So when Lord Ahmad later told parliament that “further UN-sponsored action was not possible” on Syria, this was again misleading. Indeed, Sweden’s representative on the Security Council, Olof Skoog, who had actually voted against the Russian resolution, said that “we will not give up” and that “we must come back together again” to secure agreement among the council. Skoog opposed the air strikes as constituting a violation of international law.

British arms for Israel

When ministers fail to answer a parliamentary question by omitting key information, this can also be tantamount to misleading parliament. Consider then, British arms exports to Israel. Last month Foreign Minister Alastair Burt was asked what assessment he has made of whether any UK-exported arms to Israel have been used against Palestinians.

Burt failed to answer the question directly, instead giving the standard response: “We do not issue export licences where we assess there is a clear risk that the goods might be used for internal repression”. Burt also failed to answer two other questions asking whether the UK was investigating the possible Israeli use of UK arms and whether Israel had given an undertaking not to use British arms in the Occupied Territories.

Burt avoided answering by repeating the mantra that “we only approve equipment which is for Israel’s legitimate self-defence” and that “all applications for export licences are assessed on a case-by-case basis”.

The UK Ministerial Code states that “Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest”. This is being regularly violated with impunity.

Ministers are in “contempt of parliament” if they engage in “deliberately attempting to mislead the House or a committee” but lying to parliament is not illegal. A recent petition calling for it to be made so received 124,000 signatures.

The Iraq war enraged and sensitised the British public about political deception, but far from being an aberration, ministers misleading the public is as British as afternoon tea. The government is acting like an authoritarian state. Elected MPs, and the public, must take steps to ensure government acts as if Britain were a democracy.