National Audit Office Report on Operation Telic

– in the House of Commons at 12:32 pm on 13 January 2004.

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Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 12:37, 13 January 2004

I beg to move,

That this House
congratulates Her Majesty's Armed Forces on their outstanding contribution to the success of the Coalition campaign in Iraq;
welcomes the positive findings of the National Audit Office Report on Operation TELIC—United Kingdom Military Operations in Iraq;
endorses the conclusions and recommendations of that Report, but is gravely concerned about its criticisms of major deficiencies in the supply of vital equipment to UK forces in theatre;
deplores the fact that approximately 200,000 sets of enhanced combat body armour issued since 1989 seem to have disappeared and that few troops received their full complement of the extra quantities of clothing and boots ordered from late 2002 onwards;
is particularly appalled that there was a 40 per cent. shortfall in tactical nerve-agent detection systems, vital to alert personnel that an attack was underway, and that the operational filters needed to protect Challenger 2 tanks from radiological, chemical and biological attack were not delivered to frontline units until months after the fall of Saddam, given that the Government's casus belli was fear that the Iraqi regime possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) that might be used at short notice;
condemns as totally unacceptable the extreme peril to which these supply failures exposed service men and women, because of the perceived WMD danger;
and calls upon the Government urgently to address the deficiencies identified in the Report.

Before I begin, the whole House will wish to acknowledge the awarding to the Secretary of State for Defence by the United States Defense Department of the distinguished public service award, in recognition of his support for the US-led war on terror. May I also suggest to him that for his part, he should ensure that the issuing of campaign medals for those involved in the Afghanistan conflict and in Operation Telic be expedited, so that the achievements of our servicemen and women may be more formally recognised?

The motion draws attention to the findings of a thorough and wide-ranging National Audit Office report entitled "Operation TELIC—United Kingdom Military Operations in Iraq". The report rightly finds that Operation Telic was a significant military success. I pay the warmest possible tribute, as the whole House has done on many occasions, to all those involved before and during the conflict, and in the post-conflict phase. But the NAO report finds that there were a number of profoundly serious logistical problems that could have had disastrous consequences for the 46,000 British servicemen and women involved. The report lists an extraordinary catalogue of problems, many of which were identified, incidentally, in "Lessons Learned", but which were not implemented in Operation Saif Sareea 2, in Oman. Commanders were unaware of where equipment was stored. Life-saving—

Photo of John Smith John Smith Labour, Vale of Glamorgan

The hon. Gentleman says that matters arising from that exercise were not addressed, but that is not the case. Investigations into the exercise showed that the Challenger tanks and, indeed, the SA80 rifle performed well.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

That is true, but I shall come later in my speech to further glaring deficiencies, particularly with tanks and weapons, so the hon. Gentleman should contain himself.

Life-saving plates for enhanced ceramic body armour disappeared. Vital protective equipment against chemical and biological weapons was deemed unserviceable. Weapons—for example, the excellent Minimi machine-gun and the underslung grenade launcher—turned up so late that soldiers did not have enough time to train with them. Crucially, the secure satellite links to London broke down on the first day of the war, which was not a helpful start.

Perhaps even more seriously, the raison d'être of the Government's main case for going to war was to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, that was represented as the principal casus belli. If the threat were genuine, all our troops deployed should have been protected against that kind of attack, which was definitely regarded as a possibility. On 24 September 2002, the Prime Minister said that the September dossier concluded

"that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, that Saddam has continued to produce them, that he has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes".—[Hansard, 24 September 2002; Vol. 390, c. 3.]

Shamingly, the NAO report states:

"There were difficulties in providing nuclear, biological and chemical protective suits in certain sizes in sufficient numbers".

It also said that the MOD's

"entire stock of 4,000 residual vapour detector kits was unserviceable".

The NAO also reports a 40 per cent. shortfall in tactical nerve agent detection systems. Those failings were potentially dangerous, and the consequences could have been appalling. The situation was wholly unacceptable, and we would like a detailed explanation from the Secretary of State. In one extreme case, Headquarters 1 UK Armoured Division was so desperate to locate missing chemical detection equipment that it sent a team from Kuwait to Bicester to search for vital missing stores.

If further evidence is required, the Secretary of State should reread the MOD's account of the audacious, courageous and brilliant assault on the Al-Faw peninsula by 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines:

"As final preparations were made on 20 March in the tactical assembly area to launch the assault, there had been attacks by Iraqi missiles. The brigade fully expected to be subjected to chemical attack and the helicopters to be engaged by air defence artillery."

The House should also hear about this account published in the Royal Tank Regiment journal by a squadron leader serving in the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment during Operation Telic:

"The strident call of 'Gas! Gas! Gas!' rang out over the battle group assembly 14 times a day; we learned of several Iraqi surface to surface missile launches and generally the threat of WMD use was more a matter of 'When?' rather than 'If?'".

The NAO report states that critically—and to compound the seriousness of the situation—7 Armoured Brigade's Challenger 2 tanks and other armoured vehicles did not have

"viable nuclear, biological and chemical defence filters fitted throughout the warfighting phase of the operation".

That was a disgrace and a deplorable failing, and it was a merciful deliverance that those filters were not required.

Had Iraqi forces used the chemical and biological weapons that they were suspected of having, it would have been against British forces that lacked the proper protection that they were entitled to expect. British casualties could have been very serious.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Are not those defects extraordinary given the fact that they were presided over by a Government who asserted to the House that it was the possession of weapons of mass destruction that constituted a threat to the United Kingdom? Yet the Government apparently left our armed forces unprotected against that very threat.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. The removal of weapons of mass destruction and the threat of chemical weapons was the principal casus belli in the first place.

Photo of Paul Keetch Paul Keetch Liberal Democrat, Hereford

If the then shadow Secretary of State for Defence—Mr. Jenkin, who is not in the Chamber today—and the then Leader of the Conservative party visited our troops in the Gulf during the build-up to the campaign, did the troops express concerns about their equipment?

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

Neither of my colleagues shared that news with me.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

Does my hon. Friend agree that the deficiencies that he has just described cannot be laid at the door of the civilian work forces at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down nor at the Defence Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Centre at Winterbourne Gunner, all of whom worked flat out during the run-up to the operation? Those workers are as disappointed as anybody about the deficiencies that have emerged.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have paid tribute to the work done by all those who prepared for the operation and I shall do so again. I entirely endorse my hon. Friend's words. The problem was not so much about getting the equipment to theatre—people performed heroically—but the tracking of the equipment in theatre and the fact that it did not reach the units for which it was meant.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks, but how does he reconcile the line of argument that he is pursuing with the NAO conclusion that the protection against chemical agents was good?

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

That is the line taken consistently throughout the whole report, but I have a number of other things to say on that point and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will do me the courtesy of answering them in more detail when he makes his speech.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

My hon. Friend is making some important points. He and I are involved with the same regiment—the King's Royal Hussars; I served with the 14th/20th and he served with the Royal Hussars, and he has great experience. Before the Secretary of State replies, will my hon. Friend speculate about why that essential equipment was not available when, clearly, considerable preparations were being made for the conflict?

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I shall indeed be speculating about that question. My hon. Friend raises an important point that I propose to deal with, if I may, a little later in my speech.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way once again. Mr. Key referred to deficiencies, and I wonder whether Mr. Soames would care to comment on the following quotation:

"That is not to say that there are not deficiencies. There will always be deficiencies. There are always things that the services need to do their job better."—[Hansard, 16 October 1995; Vol. 264, c. 115.]

Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

Yes, and I had intended to talk about that before the end of my speech, if the right hon. Gentleman would allow me to make a little further progress. Of course, there are always logistical problems, but our contention is that the problems that occurred were unacceptable and placed many of our troops unacceptably in harm's way, and that the replies given on these matters thus far by the right hon. Gentleman have been complacent.

On 6 February 2003, the Secretary of State reassured the House thus:

"I have given that assurance in the past and I repeat it: we are taking the necessary steps to provide our troops with appropriate protection against a nuclear, chemical or biological threat."—[Hansard, 6 February 2003; Vol. 463, c. 399.]

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Labour, Stockton South

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; I am delighted to see him at the Dispatch Box. Does he agree that the requirement to deploy in Iraq was urgent? If so, does he also accept the statement made in the NAO report that on this occasion—[Interruption.] I am sorry if I am upsetting Liberal Democrat Members. The NAO report stated that the MOD completed its deployment in about half the time taken in 1991, and did so successfully.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Lady is an adornment to the Select Committee on Defence and she is very knowledgeable on these matters, but I disagree with the suggestion that there was not enough time to prepare. The possibility of the need to go to war had been known about for a long time. Part of our contention is that the steps necessary to get everything in place were not taken when they should have been.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

No, I want to get on.

At Defence questions on 15 December 2003, the Secretary of State reassured the House yet again that

"British forces were properly protected and every British soldier had a chemical protection suit available to him."—[Hansard, 15 December 2003; Vol. 415, c. 1304.]

Can the Secretary of State clarify the profound discrepancy between the reassurances that he so blandly gave to the House and the seriousness of the NAO's findings? Specifically, did every soldier have a chemical protection suit available to him, together with all other necessary equipment to deal with a chemical-biological warfare attack before and during the war-fighting phase, which must have been deemed essential, given the nature of the threat? It is, in our judgment, impossible to exaggerate the seriousness of those matters, and they demand the most clear, unambiguous and serious response.

Second only to the appalling let-down over CBW protection was the body armour fiasco. Despite efforts to obtain covers and sets of ceramic plates to go in them, the report says:

"insufficient numbers were distributed in-theatre, largely as a result of difficulties with asset-tracking and distribution".

It goes on:

"The MOD's defence clothing integrated project team estimated that approximately 200,000 sets had been issued since the Kosovo campaign in 1999, greatly exceeding the theoretical requirement, but these seem to have disappeared."

Will the Secretary of State inform the House about the whereabouts of the body armour plates issued since the Kosovo campaign?

The importance and value of body armour can hardly be overestimated. The American defence science and technology laboratory has reported that

"body armour reduced the number of US forces killed in action from torso wounds by at least 50 per cent. (possibly up to 90 per cent.) and those killed in action overall by over 20 per cent. (possibly up to 32 per cent)."

Can the Secretary of State confirm the reports that, in the tragic case of Sergeant Roberts of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment who was killed in Iraq on 24 March 2003, those very plates would have saved his life? Is it true that Sergeant Roberts was told to hand his back because they had been withdrawn from tank crews owing to shortages elsewhere, even though his troop was operating a vehicle checkpoint and Sergeant Roberts was dismounted at the time, stopping and searching vehicles for weapons?

For our part and more generally, we believe it to be unforgivable that soldiers should have been placed in harm's way without the right equipment to protect their lives, and I put it to the House that, in truth, there can be no greater dereliction of duty and failure of the highest office than for the Secretary of State to have ordered the deployment of troops into the field without the fullest available personal protection in such very hazardous circumstances. The House is entitled to ask how many lives, had things gone wrong, might have been lost, given the very serious nature of those equipment deficiencies.

Can the Secretary of State explain why the extra quantities of desert clothing and boots were available only after the fall of Baghdad? The NAO report makes it clear that, shamefully,

"few troops received their full allocation of kit and mismatches in sizing remained into the post-conflict phase of the Operation".

How does the Secretary of State account for his thoroughly complacent and, as it now turns out, wholly inaccurate evidence to the Select Committee on 14 May last year, when he said:

"all the requisite numbers of boots and clothing and equipment were there".

That was clearly not the case. How does the Secretary of State explain that?

What about the L110 Minimi machine guns and the grenade launchers? Some 587 Minimis and 520 underslung grenade launchers were ordered before the invasion. Many of the grenade launchers did not arrive until after the fighting had started and troops had limited time to train on the Minimi, although it was a great success. Indeed, the grenade launcher, regarded as a "key infantry capability", was issued to troops around Basra only after the city had fallen. Moving on, the report highlights many other instances of the MOD inexcusably failing to stockpile the necessary equipment in advance.

There are two key reasons—this is the point made by my hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton—why the Government got themselves into this bind. First, they failed to learn from the hard-won and important lessons of Saif Sareea 2 in Oman and had negligently allowed stocks of equipment to run down to save money. Secondly, because a sizeable number of their own Back Benchers were deeply hostile to military action, Ministers were not prepared to give instructions for the purchase of additional equipment in good time. They left it until the very last minute to avoid sending signals to their own party that they were indeed contemplating war against Iraq. In fact, what they were doing was trying to soothe the anti-war element into believing that it would all be sorted out at the UN. If they got wind last September that advanced preparations for war had been put in hand, the sincerity of the Government's political moves at the UN would have been completely undermined.

The result of that just-in-time policy was that, in some critical areas, the kit arrived just too late. Indeed, as the NAO report acknowledges, it is a tremendous tribute to the logisticians that so much was shipped and delivered to the theatre in time. But, as General Sir John Reith, the chief of joint operations, told the Defence Committee last year, "we came perilously close". Ministers must bear the responsibility for coming perilously close and for the other equipment deficiencies. That is the gravity of the charge against them.

The Government are no strangers to that practice, as it is now clear—not as I thought before all the documents were made available to the Hutton inquiry—that the Prime Minster's most senior aides appear to have secured changes that altered the meaning of key intelligence material in the September dossier. The relationship of trust between the armed forces, intelligence services and No. 10 is a critical one and should never be undermined in that way again.

The Secretary of State has already said that he intends to procure an asset-tracking system. This is not before time. Indeed, it is frankly impossible to understand, given the lessons and problems of earlier operations, why that equipment is not already in place, not least since the Government have made so much of their deemed improvements in deployability in recent years.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I will not; I shall press on.

Asset tracking seems to be the reoccurring problem. The Public Accounts Committee report on Exercise Saif Sareea 2 stated that

"the Department's current asset tracking systems . . . give commanders in theatre no oversight of the assets being sent to them."

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes Labour/Co-operative, Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I remember when he was a Minister in the MOD. Why did he not introduce an asset-tracking system?

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

In the light of what has turned out, I very much wish that that had been a priority then and that we had done so. It is quite clear that an asset-tracking system is long overdue. Indeed, the lessons learned from all military operations in the past few years have been that moving supplies is very difficult and that a most expert tracking system is required. The Government have much work to do on asset tracking and, in the view of the Conservative party, it should have been done some time ago.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. He rightly highlights a lot of issues about equipment, but does he agree that there are also deficiencies in a variety of services? Chapter 8.24 of the Government's document, "Lessons for the Future", says:

"Experience on this operation demonstrated that the MOD cannot necessarily rely on contractor support in regions where the threat level is high."

If we are to learn lessons, should we not learn them now and avoid the privatisation of the defence fire service in the months ahead?

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman has a particular interest in respect of the defence fire service. I am not sure that contractor support does not have an important role to play in the future, but that is a matter for the Secretary of State—for the next 18 months or so, and then we will sort it out.

It is important to keep a sense of proportion on these matters. The latest operations in Iraq were a great triumph for British forces, and it is true that there will always be some problems with logistics. Indeed, the report rightly praises the work of the Defence Logistics Organisation and others in getting so much kit shifted. But the worst of the reported failings were potentially catastrophic and the House will, I am sure, feel that they are completely unacceptable for a modern-day army, finding itself deployed on dangerous operations in hostile climates. That British troops invading Iraq were deprived of vital equipment, including body armour and protection against chemical or biological attack, as well as such basic equipment as desert boots and clothing, is truly unforgivable in our judgment. The Secretary of State's continually complacent response is unacceptable to my party, the wider country and, especially, service families, who will share a sense of outrage that our troops were placed in harm's way without the proper kit. The Secretary of State should go.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence 1:00, 13 January 2004

I beg to move in line 3, to leave out from "Iraq" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

'and welcomes the report of the National Audit Office "Operation TELIC—United Kingdom Military Operations in Iraq", which is consistent with the main conclusions of the Ministry of Defence's own report "Operations in Iraq—Lessons for the Future".'.

I congratulate the official Opposition on their choice of subject for today's debate. Indeed, I welcomed the report on Operation Telic by the National Audit Office when it was published last December. I welcome the opportunity that the debate provides once again to acknowledge the outstanding performance of our armed forces in Iraq because, in the words of the NAO, Operation Telic was a "significant military success".

As an independent body, it is not the NAO's role to lavish praise on Government Departments. It rightly gives credit where it is due, as it has done in the case of Operation Telic, but it also addresses areas in which performance can be improved. The NAO report rightly highlights the resounding success of Operation Telic, but it also points out a number of examples where there is scope for improvement in the way in which we conducted operations in Iraq. I welcome the NAO's views on those matters as well. In substance, its findings are no different from the conclusions of the Ministry of Defence's "Lessons Learned" process.

I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will forgive me if I remind them that the Ministry of Defence published two reports on Operation Telic last year. The first was published in July and the second in December. The first gave an interim account of the operation together with some early indicators of lessons for the future. The second, which was based on the Ministry of Defence's customary more thorough analysis of the operation, gave a fuller account of our conclusions. That was published on the same day as the NAO report and the two are broadly consistent. That is no surprise, because as I made clear at the time, we aimed to produce a full and frank report on all aspects of the operation—not only the parts that went well, but those that could have been done better.

Before I address several of the specific points made by Mr. Soames, let me set the operation in context. This was the largest logistics effort by the UK armed forces since the 1991 Gulf conflict. We deployed around 45,000 servicemen and women from all three services over 3,400 km to the Gulf region, together with all the supplies of food, water, fuel and ammunition required to sustain them. That required more than 70 ship moves and more than 1,200 chartered and military aircraft sorties. We deployed the about same number of personnel and volume of matériel as in 1991 in less than half the time taken then. As the NAO recognised in its executive summary, that was "a major achievement"—not only a military achievement, but a logistic achievement. Our logisticians are not always given the praise that they deserve, so I am delighted to be able to take the opportunity once again to congratulate them. They did a magnificent job.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

Everyone congratulates our armed forces on the role that they played and the work that they did on behalf of this country. Will my right hon. Friend state what devastation the previous Government caused to the medical services, which had to be rebuilt to ensure that there were real medical services for those who were injured and in need of medical equipment immediately?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I am sorry that my hon. Friend did not intervene on the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex, because I recall that he had some responsibility for that during his period in office. All that I can say is that this Government are taking action to address those difficulties, which were caused by the misguided cutbacks made when the previous Government were responsible for defence. Indeed, there is a catalogue of difficulties that we have had across the board because of the significant financial cuts that were imposed on the armed forces during the long period of the Conservative Government. It does not help the Conservative spokesman to come to the Dispatch Box to complain about the present state of the armed forces, given the significant increases in expenditure that the Government have been able to provide, often to try to deal with problems that we inherited from our predecessors. Defence Medical Services are an extremely good example of that.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

I endorse everything that my right hon. Friend said about the military operations in Iraq—I fully supported the overthrow of one of the most murderous dictatorships in the world—but does he consider it appropriate to make brief reference now to the killings that occurred in Amara over the weekend? I understand that six Iraqis were killed—five by the police and apparently one by British soldiers. We all deplore what has happened, so will he make a comment?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I understand perfectly well why my hon. Friend raises that issue, because it is a matter of some concern. He and other hon. Members will appreciate that there is a continuing investigation into the matter, so it is best that I do not go into detail now save to say that there was serious public disorder and that British forces behaved with the customary expertise with which they handle such problems. The television pictures that I saw over the weekend showing the way in which they dealt with the problem reminded me of some of the training that I have seen in Northern Ireland. I assure my hon. Friend and the House that as soon as the investigation is complete, Ministers will be in a position to provide more information.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The Secretary of State must have seen press reports about my former constituent, Colonel Tim Collins, and the extent to which he and many other officers feel let down by the Ministry's failure to respond quickly to deal with and dismiss the ridiculous allegations that were made against him and one or two of his brother officers. Does he accept that the Government owe a duty to give armed forces personnel who risk their lives for us the benefit of the doubt in such cases?

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

Coming back to the substance of the NAO report, may I draw the Secretary of State's attention to one simple statement? The report says:

"7 Armoured Brigade armoured vehicles did not have viable Nuclear Biological and Chemical defence filters fitted throughout the warfighting phase of the Operation."

What does he think would have happened if there had been a nuclear, biological or chemical attack on those vehicles during the war?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I should not ask the hon. Gentleman questions, but he is usually fair-minded about these matters. Chemical, biological and nuclear protection is designed to protect not vehicles but people. I was concerned that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex was perhaps unconsciously misleading the House about whether individuals were properly protected. As Dr. Lewis thinks through the implications of what I am saying to the House and of the NAO report, he must ask himself the vital question of whether individuals were properly protected. The NAO report says that they were.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

With respect, the Secretary of State has not answered my question. If the people in the tanks had been subjected to a chemical or biological attack, the agents would have got into the tanks because of the absence of the correct filters and the individuals would have died. Similarly, there was a 40 per cent. shortage of detection kits. Unless people have detection kits, they do not know that attacks—especially biological attacks—are under way until some time after they have begun, so does he agree that individuals were gravely at risk?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The hon. Gentleman usually reads documents with a great deal more care than that with which he appears to have read the NAO report. I apologise for saying that because, as I said, he is generally a fair-minded man. He needs to look carefully at the report's conclusions. He cannot pick out one detail on vehicles without—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman were to listen while I am speaking rather than making comments, he would find out that the report concluded that the protection given to the armed forces was good in that respect. The answer to his question is that men and women would not have died in such circumstances because they were protected. The report states that fact rather than his suggestion of something to the contrary.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Surely, the Secretary of State is wriggling. Figure 6 in the NAO report says quite plainly that the vehicles were not fitted with those filters. He is right that it was theoretically possible for individual soldiers in the vehicles to use their personal NBC kits, but that is to ignore the fundamental point that vehicles should be fitted with filters so that the individuals inside do not need to wear their NBC kit in desert conditions. Will he not answer the question asked by my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis more specifically? Why were operational filters not issued to the vehicles before Telic 1?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

As I have said, the NAO report, which Opposition Members want to debate, concludes that the overall level of protection in relation to NBC equipment was good—[Interruption.] That may not satisfy them, but if they want to debate a report, they need to debate it in its entirety. Its conclusions are clear, and I am disturbed by their inability to read all of the report. Simply picking out a sentence here and there is not satisfactory.

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea

I am worried that the Secretary of State may have put himself in a ridiculous position by arguing that those filters were not necessary. If they were necessary, they should have been fitted. If they were not, they should not have been ordered. What is the position?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I am not putting myself in that position at all. I accept entirely that it would have been better for those vehicles to be fitted with filters, but the decision about whether or not forces are ready for battle—the latter was the case in Iraq—is not made in the Ministry of Defence or Whitehall, as the right hon. Gentleman will know from his own experience. It is made by force commanders on the ground, who render the military advice about whether their troops are ready for battle. That advice was clearly given.

We were discussing the question of lessons learned. The procedure adopted by the Ministry of Defence ensures that there is a thorough lessons learned process after each operation to identify what could have been done better, and that was true of Operation Telic. The Department's own report, "Operations in Iraq: Lessons for the Future" was the result of gathering extensive evidence from those involved in the operation at all levels. It covered the full range of operational issues, and identified lessons for the future. There is no benefit in a lessons process that is bland or uncritical. I encouraged the production of an honest, unflinching report that focused quite rightly on the future, and outlined areas where there must be improvements. Our hard-hitting report made no attempt to pretend that everything was perfect, and the NAO itself acknowledged that the Ministry of Defence

"has a comprehensive process for identifying lessons."

As a consequence of that lessons process, the Department has itself identified areas where improvements can be made, and a number of strands of work are already under way. For example, as a result of the experience of recent operations, including Operation Telic, the MOD has increased, or is increasing, holdings of certain operational stocks, including 32,000 sets of desert combat clothing, 32,000 sets of tropical combat clothing, 32,000 sets of NBC individual protection equipment, and an additional 1.5 million individual operational ration packs. In addition, equipment that proved itself during the operation such as the Minimi light machine gun, which has already been mentioned, is now being purchased in greater numbers to complement the excellent equipment already in service.

The Ministry of Defence has already recognised the need for a senior logistician to provide a headquarters focus for logistics matters. A total asset visibility system was purchased to help track equipment that is going into theatre during the deployment. Further work is still required, however, on the tracking of supplies and equipment already in theatre. As for planning, the defence White Paper that I presented to the House before Christmas sets the framework within which we will plan for future conflicts. In addition, recently there has been detailed consideration of our planning assumptions, which were reissued in revised form in August last year to take account of the lessons from Iraq. In a wider perspective, we have been working closely with other Government Departments to improve our planning for post-conflict situations. The MOD is fully engaged and contributing to all those groups, and has valuable expertise to offer on the issues of conflict prevention, military intervention, military-civilian transition and post-conflict reconstruction.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

Anybody who has been involved in an operation accepts that there will be deficiencies and shortcomings in equipment. Any superficial study of military history will show that in every campaign there are problems. Soldiers accept that, but there are one or two things that every soldier, airman and sailor must have. How does the Secretary of State explain the fact that soldiers from the South Nottinghamshire Hussars went into battle without any ammunition for their personal weapons?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I am simply not aware of that. The hon. Gentleman has previously raised this matter with me and with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who intends to deal with it in correspondence. I am not aware that individuals were placed in that position, but I shall certainly have the matter investigated, and have previously undertaken to ensure that it is brought to the attention of those responsible. If what the hon. Gentleman says proves to be the case, I shall write to him.

When I gave evidence to the Defence Committee last May I made it clear that our lessons work was still at a relatively early stage, as less than a month had elapsed since serious fighting had stopped. Some press reports alleged that there were various equipment and personal kit shortages early in the operation. I acknowledged even then that

"in an operation of this size there are bound to be glitches", and I undertook to be

"rigorous in analysing our performance".

However, I stressed that shortfalls needed to be seen in the context of a highly successful campaign, in which our equipment proved to be of a very high quality. I stand by that judgement, as indeed does the NAO.

The extensive work by the Ministry of Defence and the NAO since that evidence session in May has produced a much more detailed picture. It has provided greater detail on shortcomings, but it has also reinforced the overall success of the operation.

Photo of Paul Keetch Paul Keetch Liberal Democrat, Hereford

In evidence to the Select Committee hearing on 14 May, the Secretary of State said that the chiefs of staff had assured him

"at every stage that there were no complaints" about kit. He certainly received complaints from me, but can he tell the House whether he received complaints from Conservative Members about deficiencies in kit in the run-up to operations?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I accept that general points were made about preparations, and I certainly recall individual Members raising those matters with me. Inevitably, in those circumstances, it is necessary to rely on the military advice given at the time, and I shall deal with that more thoroughly in a moment. I am sure that Opposition Members would be the first to complain if they judged that Ministers at a distance in Whitehall were interfering with day-to-day decisions about military capability, which were made, quite properly, by those responsible on the ground.

Turning to specific concerns about equipment deficiencies, the Ministry of Defence is already aware of the need for some improvements in logistics, but those issues must be viewed in the context of the overwhelming success of the operation. Indeed the Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, acknowledged on the day that the NAO report was published that equipment shortfalls

"should be seen in the wider context of the overall success".

We now know that the shortfalls experienced in a handful of equipment areas did not affect operational capability. The commanders in theatre made their preparations and declared full operational capability to the Ministry of Defence before operations commenced. They were satisfied that they had all the equipment that they required to conduct the campaign successfully. As the NAO points out,

"the huge logistic effort was successful and fundamental to the success of the operation. There were many examples of success in the way that the logistics challenge was met."

There is therefore a challenge for Opposition Members. Are they suggesting that Ministers should second-guess the military advice provided by commanders in theatre? If that were the case, and there was evidence of Ministers second-guessing military advice, they would have been, quite rightly, the first to complain. It is their call—are they saying that Ministers should have overridden the advice of military commanders in theatre? That has never been the case in the past, nor should it be the case in future.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

The right hon. Gentleman has been generous in giving way, but does he not accept that the ethos of the British services has always been to salute, turn to the right and go into battle when instructed to do so by the Secretary of State? None the less, that does not mean that there were not deficiencies in the kit with which they were issued. To argue that the fact that officers on the ground said that they were operationally ready excuses criticism in the NAO report is grossly inadequate.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I'm sorry—I thought the hon. Gentleman had a much closer knowledge and understanding of individual members of the armed forces than his question displayed. Having spent almost four and a half years working closely with them, I assure him and other hon. Members—there are many present who know better than that—that senior members of the armed forces and many junior ones are very forthright in setting out their views and opinions, and certainly would not respond in the way the hon. Gentleman suggested if they thought they were incapable of carrying through a military operation successfully. When he looks at the record of his observation in Hansard, perhaps tomorrow, I think he will realise that that was not the most sensible thing he has ever said to the House.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex rightly raised the issue of body armour, with particular reference to the death of Sergeant Steven Roberts. The hon. Gentleman is well aware that the death of Sergeant Roberts is currently the subject of a Royal Military Police Special Investigation Branch investigation, and it would therefore be inappropriate to comment in detail or to speculate on what the findings of the SIB investigation might be. I have, however, undertaken to keep Sergeant Roberts's widow, Mrs. Samantha Roberts, informed of progress on a regular basis. She has been provided, in confidence, with a summary of the incident in which her husband died, and a ballistics report. I have also met her personally and I have indicated that I would be willing to do so again. Once the SIB investigation has concluded, an Army board of inquiry will be convened.

Perhaps I should explain some of the complicating factors relating to the issue and tracking of body armour during Operation Telic. The Ministry of Defence took the decision to improve the protection offered to servicemen and women deployed on Operation Telic by issuing enhanced combat body armour, initially designed for peacekeeping duties in Northern Ireland, to as many troops as possible. To this end, 38,000 sets of enhanced body armour were sent to theatre, which should have been sufficient to equip all who needed it. Not all of this equipment reached every unit in theatre before the start of combat operations. However, the equipment that was known to arrive in theatre was prioritised for those whom commanders judged had the greatest need, ensuring that all dismounted infantry units benefited from this additional protection.

A question has also arisen about 200,000 sets of combat body armour said to have been lost since the Kosovo campaign. Although it is a fact that, once issued, the Defence Logistics Organisation cannot locate each individual set of components that comprise enhanced combat body armour or combat body armour, the body armour components are currently held by individual units and are not, in fact, lost. The defence clothing project team is undertaking an audit with Land Command to establish the basis for future needs and the extent of the Army's holdings, and intends to extend that audit to both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy.

There have also been concerns about the supply of desert boots and desert clothing. The Ministry of Defence's own report acknowledges that, despite a huge effort, a number of soldiers did not receive desert clothing and boots in time. We routinely planned to hold enough desert equipment to support our high readiness forces—some 9,000 personnel. On this occasion we chose to deploy significantly more personnel. To make good the shortfall, an additional 40,000 pairs of desert boots and 80,000 sets of desert clothing were sent to theatre. Not all of this equipment arrived with troops before the start of combat operations. However, front-line forces were equipped as a first priority, and temperatures in the Gulf at that time of year meant that these shortages did not impair our forces' ability to fight.

There have also been suggestions, as we heard today, that our defences against chemical or biological attack were inadequate. I entirely reject that suggestion and agree with the NAO that overall the protection against chemical agents was good. UK forces were deployed with comprehensive defences against chemical and biological attack. There were in general already sufficient stocks of nuclear, biological and chemical defence equipment in store to mount Operation Telic. Furthermore, strenuous efforts were made to address any shortfalls that were identified in our regular stockholding during the preparation and planning period. Again, that is set out clearly in the NAO's report.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

During exercise Saif Sareea we on the Defence Committee were able to see armoured crews practising for chemical conditions without personal equipment being worn, on the clear understanding that NBC vehicle filters would be in place. I do not need to labour the point about the efficiency of the crew when wearing their masks. The Secretary of State mentioned that such preparation was in place. He mentioned that lessons were learned from Saif Sareea. That does not seem to be the case.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I do not accept that for a moment. I shall go on to deal with the point. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue the matter further after that, I shall be delighted to give way to him again.

In the event, all service personnel had their own personal respirator and at least one NBC suit before the start of combat operations. In addition, a variety of detection systems were deployed to the Gulf to provide early warning of any attack, which thankfully never came. We believe the chemical and biological protection given to our troops is among the very best in the world. We have acknowledged in our own reports that there were deficiencies in the way stocks of some NBC equipment were managed. The Department is working hard to ensure that that does not occur again. However, as the NAO recognises in its report, mitigating action was taken through a combination of purchasing spare parts and rigorous re-testing of equipment. The operational requirement was consequently fully met.

Despite the difficulties that the NAO report and our own reports have identified, we must not lose sight of the fact that the Ministry of Defence once again performed with distinction, the equipment provided for the armed forces was very effective, its logistic support was most impressive, and the revolution in strategy and doctrine that we instigated in 1998 has again been vindicated.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

In my comments at the beginning and end of my speech, I was at pains to dispense rightful praise to all involved in what was a military success. There remain, however, some glaring deficiencies, which the right hon. Gentleman refuses to deal with, or deals with in such a way that everything, apparently, is perfectly okay. May I draw his attention to figure 12 of the NAO report, which summarises the repeated identification of logistics lessons from previous operations and previous exercises? In Saif Sareea, the lessons learned involved poor asset tracking, poor logistic communications, stock shortages, priority deadlines not met and lack of control over the coupling bridge. Exactly the same lessons seem to have to be learned in Telic. Why were the lessons of Saif Sareea not more swiftly put in place?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The central difficulty under which the hon. Gentleman is labouring, if he will forgive me for saying so, is that the operation was an outstanding success and has been recognised as such by everyone. If he were arguing that it was a significant failure, there might be some force to his criticisms, but again, I refer him and all Opposition Members to the conclusions of the NAO report. That organisation carefully considered all the evidence and made a balanced judgment, reporting to Parliament, and its conclusion is clear. I refer the hon. Gentleman to paragraph 9, which states:

"The logistic effort for the Operation was huge and key to success."

The start of paragraph 10 states:

"Overall, the logistic effort was successful".

He cannot go behind those conclusions, not least having selected the NAO's report to Parliament as the basis for this debate. He either accepts the validity of what the NAO is saying to Parliament, or he rejects the report in its entirety.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I shall not give way again. I have almost concluded my remarks.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell Labour, Linlithgow

Will my right hon. Friend allow me?

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell Labour, Linlithgow

The Secretary of State rightly refers to performance with distinction. I know perfectly well that it is not up to Ministers, and properly so, to have any say whatever in the award of distinguished service orders, military crosses and other honours. That must be done on a military basis. However, I think he knows why I ask the question. Could he confirm that the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards performed with distinction?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I can, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that. I have made the same point in relation to a range of our armed forces who were engaged in these operations. Had Opposition Members come to the House today with the benefit of a critical report following a military failure, they might have had some reason for making the kind of criticisms that they are making. Instead, they have come to debate in the House today a report that is supportive of the position taken by the Government, and which says that the effort, logistically in particular, was an outstanding success, and that the military operations were an outstanding success.

Photo of Hugh Robertson Hugh Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

Although I accept what the Secretary of State says, surely he would accept that one of the principal reasons why the operation was such a success was precisely that our armed forces were not subject to the very sort of attack that was his principal casus belli. If they had been subject to such an attack without the correct filters in the tanks that were indeed the battle-winning asset, the outcome might have been very different.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I accept that all sorts of things could have happened, but even on the specific point that the hon. Gentleman fairly and properly makes—he always makes informed observations in the House on the position of the armed forces—the report's conclusion is clear. It says that the protection available to Britain's armed forces was good. He cannot go behind that clear conclusion of the NAO.

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Labour, Stockton South

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I have listened with great care to all that you have said at the Dispatch Box this afternoon, and you have, rightly in my view, praised—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The hon. Lady must get her terminology right.

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Labour, Stockton South

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I got carried away.

I have listened with great care to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has rightly heaped praise on the British armed forces as they have been deployed, including for the way in which they have worked with communities in Iraq. I would greatly appreciate it if he would widen his praise, because the Territorial Army has been fundamental to the success of the British armed forces. I should be very grateful if he would comment on that aspect.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

If I have been remiss with regard to reservists—I see at least two in front of me who have served with great distinction—I apologise. We have had an indication of just how central the reserves have become in the overall effort of the armed forces. That is a vindication of the policy set out in the 1998 strategic defence review of making our reserve forces usable. They have performed with absolute distinction in this operation.

In conclusion, our armed forces are continuing to perform a difficult but vital job in Iraq, helping the Iraqi people to establish a functioning infrastructure, providing security and stability and creating the conditions for a viable new Government. British civilians are also working in the region, carrying out our country's commitment to act as a force for good in an uncertain world. I am sure that the House will join me once again in honouring the magnificent work of all our people, who continue to demonstrate their exceptional quality, courage and dedication.

Photo of Paul Keetch Paul Keetch Liberal Democrat, Hereford 1:32, 13 January 2004

I join the shadow Secretary of State for Defence in congratulating the Secretary of State on his award from the Pentagon. I also back the calls for the Afghan and Iraqi campaign medals to be issued very quickly.

I, too, welcome this debate. The Secretary of State was right to point out that the National Audit Office report commends the Ministry of Defence on a military success. The staff at the MOD and the military personnel around the world who contributed to that success deserve recognition. However, although Operation Telic may well have been a military success, it is, quite frankly, too early to say whether the war and its aftermath have been a success.

There are many questions about the operation and I congratulate the Conservatives on raising them in debate today. However, their support for the decision to invade Iraq, on the basis of what many people believe was flawed intelligence and despite the fact that the United Nations inspectors believed that progress could be made, should not be forgotten. Indeed, the Conservative party bears responsibility for supporting the war, just as the Government bear responsibility for taking this country to war.

The concerns raised about kit in the NAO report were well understood before the war began. They were voiced by the forces and by me and others when we visited the Gulf last January. They were expressed to me by constituents and have also been expressed to other hon. Members. When I raised those concerns with the Secretary of State on numerous occasions, he told me that I had

"'unreasonably fuelled' the criticism of the logistics arrangements".—[Hansard, 3 March 2003; Vol. 400, c. 565.]

Perhaps I did and perhaps I did not, but I hope that he would not make the same accusation about the families of Steven Roberts and the other people killed in the war. On the subject of Sergeant Steven Roberts, I commend the work of my hon. Friend Mr. Tyler. We believe that the way in which Sergeant Roberts's family is treated will be a litmus test for the Ministry of Defence and the Secretary of State. However, there is no point in just calling for the Secretary of State to resign; Sergeant Roberts's family want explanations, and I am sure that they will come through.

The Conservatives should have been raising concerns about kit before the build-up to the campaign, rather than simply complaining afterwards. Instead, they blindly supported the drive to war, and the public will eventually come to understand the hypocrisy of their position. The previous Speaker, Speaker Boothroyd, in advising me on voting in this place, advised me simply to read the Order Paper and then read it again. Having read the motion before us today, despite misgivings and although I will do so through gritted teeth, I shall support it later.

The report highlights many supply and logistics problems that occurred during Operation Telic. Most worryingly, many of those problems, as has already been said, were identified in previous operations and exercises. They include problems relating to spares, asset tracking and supply chain management. I shall give just two quotes from the report. Page 45 states:

"Some key lessons have been identified before. This appears to be particularly true for those lessons which only have a significant impact during high-intensity warfighting operations."

In other words, the problems were most acute when we were going into real warfare. On asset tracking, page 24 states:

"The lack of an effective asset tracking capability has been highlighted repeatedly on previous operations and exercises."

The report confidently expresses the view that the MOD will learn from the difficulties raised. I hope that it does, but I suspect that we will not know whether that has happened until we see a future operation.

We are talking not only about technical problems, but about basics—boots, clothes, body armour and nuclear, biological and chemical protection suits.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

Before the hon. Gentleman gets on to the basic matter of boots and so on, I should not want him to leave the House with the impression that an asset tracking system in theatre can somehow be produced off the shelf or purchased at one's local computer store. Even the Pentagon has been frustrated in its efforts to produce an appropriate system that will work in all temperatures and conditions. I do not want him to leave anyone with the idea that we could go out and purchase such a system tomorrow and that there was a failure to produce one in the past. This is an enormously complex and difficult area of expertise on which we still have more work to do.

Photo of Paul Keetch Paul Keetch Liberal Democrat, Hereford

The Secretary of State is absolutely right. He was also right to comment in his speech on the fact that the previous Government had not invested in such equipment. Poor asset tracking was regarded as a problem in the Bosnia and Herzegovina operation back in 1995–96, and I seem to remember that the Conservatives were then in power.

To go back to boots, the kind of equipment and body armour that was lacking could have saved Sergeant Roberts's life. Many Members highlighted such problems at the time, based on the complaints that they had received from forces families, but we were told again and again that there was no problem, that the press were exaggerating and that every person was fully equipped. Indeed, the Secretary of State told the Select Committee on Defence in evidence on 14 May that

"there might have been the odd person who did not get the right sized pair of boots."

Clearly, that was not just the odd soldier. As the report rightly said, "few troops" received their full complement of desert clothing and boots. As the Secretary of State has said, members of the armed forces were very quick to respond and to complain. They certainly complained to me. It was because of those problems that, as they told me before the conflict, they were nicknamed "the borrowers" by their US counterparts.

We also know that the NBC equipment problems were experienced against a background in which weapons of mass destruction might actually have been deployed, despite the comments in the Carnegie report and those of Mr. O'Neill. Before the war, the Government were at times almost hysterical about the possibilities regarding weapons of mass destruction, but the priority given to NBC equipment seems to give the lie to their concern. As we know, and as has already been said, some soldiers returned to the UK to search for their NBC equipment, and just over half the NBC detection equipment and NBC filters for armoured vehicles were not even delivered, let alone fitted. What is more, according to the report, only 10 per cent. of NBC vehicle decontamination systems were in place before the start of combat operations on 19 March.

In the event, it seems that we should be very thankful that Saddam Hussein either did not have or did not deploy weapons of mass destruction. However, if WMD are to be the greatest threat facing our country in future, the ability to defend our troops against chemical or biological attack simply must be improved.

Supply problems, especially in relation to AS90 guns and Challenger tanks, meant that many vehicles—indeed, up to 30 per cent. of the fleet at home—were cannibalised for spares. Where does that leave our armoured capability, and how long will it take the Ministry of Defence to get back to its required targets?

It is not just with kit and equipment that there were problems. We have said before that we believe that the armed forces are experiencing overstretch, and the strain on our armed forces has been exacerbated by Iraq. We do not need an NAO report to tell us that, but its recommendations must be taken seriously. Overstretch is not merely an unfortunate constraint on the ability to deploy: it affects our ability to win battles and to save lives in combat. The Defence Medical Services were rightly highlighted in that context. Key specialisations need to be addressed, and troops should not go into combat uncertain about their capabilities or their support staff. Reservists have been relied on to an enormous extent—we owe them a true debt of gratitude—but the conditions and confusions surrounding their terms of service have alienated many. Conditions for those who fill the breach must improve—otherwise, the shortfall that has appeared will not be met, but increased.

Photo of Brian Jenkins Brian Jenkins Labour, Tamworth

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, this is probably one of the first times that an NAO report has been discussed in the Chamber without yet having gone to the Public Accounts Committee. Every word that is uttered will be entered into evidence to allow the PAC to grill the Department on the report. Will he try to ensure that those of us on the PAC are given the opportunity to remain non-political in assessing the facts and the surrounding evidence?

Photo of Paul Keetch Paul Keetch Liberal Democrat, Hereford

The hon. Gentleman is right about the PAC. Although lessons have been learned from the operation, some of its long-term consequences will not be known for many months or years, and we will have to return to them.

The report is critical of post-war planning. If Operation Telic was a military success, the Government's lack of foresight, given what followed, certainly was not. The report makes plain what we all knew, stating on page 32 that

"the Government had not fully anticipated the consequences of a total collapse of the Saddam regime and what the United Kingdom's obligations would be once hostilities had ceased."

Our armed forces performed all their usual tasks in their usual way, but the Government's planning before and in the aftermath of the war was inadequate. How could that be so? If ever there was a war that we could see coming, it was surely this one.

I commend our armed forces for again demonstrating that they are the best in the world, but I urge the Government to learn not only the operational lessons of Operation Telic, but the political and strategic lessons of going to war without international support. This was not a war of necessity, but a war of choice by the Prime Minister and the President of the United States. There were, as we maintained, other ways of dealing with Iraq. As the former Chief of the Defence Staff pointed out, we are currently not in a position to mount a major operation and will not be for some time. The Government must ensure that the lessons set out in the report are learned and, more importantly, put into practice. Our armed forces have again shown their skill and great courage, and the Government must play their part.

I hope that the ConservativesHer Majesty's loyal Opposition—will also learn those lessons. I asked the shadow Defence Secretary whether his predecessor and the previous leader of the Conservative party were told of the concerns that I have raised when they visited the Gulf at the beginning of last year. On 13 March last year, the then shadow Defence Secretary told The Daily Telegraph that

"everything I asked about when I was there, I was absolutely assured would arrive in time".

Perhaps the shadow Defence Secretary should not be so quick to accept the Government's assurances. I hope that Conservative Members, who were so readily convinced in their blind rush to go to war, will not be so easily appeased in future.

Photo of John Smith John Smith Labour, Vale of Glamorgan 1:44, 13 January 2004

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I congratulate the Opposition spokesman on choosing the subject of the National Audit Office report. That was courageous of him, because nobody can be in any doubt that even a cursory reading illustrates the tremendous military success of Operation Telic and the way in which our forces were protected in an incredibly difficult and dangerous theatre of war.

The references that have been made to the length of time that was available to prepare for the operation are not entirely accurate. Not only did we make one of the most rapid deployments of British forces in our entire military history—almost 46,000 troops were transported more than 3,000 miles within 10 weeks, which is less than half the time that it took to deploy forces in the first Gulf war—but we had to deploy them at very short notice in a scenario that was not anticipated. It was originally planned that the British support role was to be based, with our allies, the Americans, in northern Iraq and southern Turkey; but, at incredibly short notice, we had to reconfigure all our forces to Kuwait and to approaches from the south. That would have presented an enormous logistical challenge to a relatively small force, let alone a force on that scale. In addition to the massive movements of personnel, thousands of vehicles, hundreds of planes and several warships were deployed. It seems incredible to me, even with my very limited experience of military matters, that we were able to mount such an operation. The criticisms that have been made are meagre in comparison with its military success and the speed with which it was undertaken.

As for inadequate equipment, one of the most important aspects of an operation of such danger was the limited number of British casualties. If we were ill prepared and ill equipped, had not planned properly, and did not have such excellent military leadership, the number of casualties—not only military, but civilian—would have been far higher. As the report makes clear, the gloom and doom merchants who predicted tens or hundreds of thousands of casualties were proved wrong by the great success of the operation in terms of planning, equipment and support. I am saddened by the comments of Conservative Members, because they know better. In relation to the inadequate supply of boots or clothing, when has it ever been any different? Asset tracking sounds wonderful—we owe it to the taxpayer and to our soldiers in the field to pursue it—but it is simply not true that the problem has only just appeared on the horizon and exposes and threatens our forces. When moving so many items of equipment, the idea that one is in the warehouse of an Asda or some other well known supermarket and can track the destination of every tin of beans, identify how much is being sold and relate back from the till to the men and women in the warehouse is nonsense. You are on a battlefield for goodness sake—under threat with life at stake. The equipment must be managed in the most difficult circumstances.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and apologise to the Secretary of State for being absent for his contribution this afternoon, when I was at a meeting. The hon. Gentleman makes the interesting point that the boots were not so important and that perhaps the problem has arisen previously. Does he feel the same about the failure to supply ceramic plates for flak jackets and the fact that men and women on active duty had flak jackets without adequate protection to stop a bullet?

Photo of John Smith John Smith Labour, Vale of Glamorgan

I never said that. I said that, when referring to an apparent lack of protective equipment, we should consider the number of fatalities. Every one is a tragedy, but there is sufficient proof that the large-scale military operation was conducted in such a way that the lives and interests of our troops were protected. The bottom line is that whether to put troops into the field and whether they are adequately protected are military decisions. Ministers and politicians—certainly not those present—do not make such decisions.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is currently an investigation into the death of one of our servicemen who might not have been killed had he been wearing the right protective equipment?

Photo of John Smith John Smith Labour, Vale of Glamorgan

Everyone in the House awaits the outcome with interest. If there are lessons to be learned from that, as well as general lessons, I am sure that we shall take them on board.

I want to speak about the availability of equipment. References have been made to the full complement of protective equipment and clothing. Anyone who has been in the military realises that there is a huge difference between a full complement and what is needed to do the job. I understand that three sets of military fatigues are considered a full complement—strictly speaking, what is needed to go into an operational area. Of course, that does not happen.

Decisions about clothing, equipment and munitions are made when it is almost impossible to track what is going on. Let me give an example from my experience. I have been involved in an operation in which vital equipment is flown in and unloaded, and several well meaning, usually young and inexperienced, officers direct where it should go—where it is vital and where it is not so important. Everybody salutes and agrees to carry out the commands, but a couple of experienced non-commissioned officers who have previously been in such situations say, "Don't take too much notice of that. This is where the equipment's going and this is where it's needed." Frankly, that is often what makes British forces so effective. We have not only experienced officers but NCOs who can make key decisions and take leadership roles on the battlefield.

Of course, stuff goes missing—stacks of it go missing. As a former serviceman, I found one word in the report very interesting. It says that equipment is "misappropriated". That means that military personnel who need it grab it while they can. They want to be able to use it when they need it. I emphasise to hon. Members who do not know it that such decisions are made all the time in the heat of battle and war. The idea that one can introduce a system, whether it is called asset tracking or anything else, which works efficiently in a battle does not stand up. We should work towards it, but we shall be lucky if we are in a position in future to locate assets easily in such circumstances.

The report is interesting, but we must bear in mind the fact that it is written by auditors. Military personnel or people with direct experience of military decision making certainly did not write it. By and large, it reads like an auditors' report. It is about value for money and what has happened to some of the equipment that was put in the field. That is clear from references to our personnel's ability to adapt and modify equipment on the battlefield because they do not get exactly what they want when they want it and for the task for which it is needed.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Does the hon. Gentleman seriously suggest that the fact that our soldiers are good at making do and mending excuses our not providing the proper equipment in the first place?

Photo of John Smith John Smith Labour, Vale of Glamorgan

No, I am not trying to say that. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that British soldiers are the best in the world at adapting to circumstances, modifying equipment and recovering vehicles on the battlefield. They lead the rest of the world in their ability to be flexible and adaptable. That is why they are playing such an important—indeed, invaluable—role in the current military operation under the overall control of the United States. Opposition Members have simply provided a catalogue of logistical failures.

Photo of John Smith John Smith Labour, Vale of Glamorgan

No, it is not. The report's overall conclusion is that the operation was a huge military success conducted in a hostile and austere environment. We achieved our military objectives and we should have nothing but praise for our military forces, the Ministry of Defence and the conduct of our Ministers throughout the military operation. [Interruption.] Hon. Members will not hear me lavishing praise on Ministers unless I believe that it is justly deserved. Today, it is deserved and the report shows the reasons for that. I am therefore pleased that the subject was chosen as the topic for today's debate. We should all be proud of such a huge military success.

We need to be careful when we draw parallels, but some of the comparisons between the way in which British forces and others conducted themselves in the theatre of operations and post-war show the former's greater experience and professionalism, and better training. Of course, they must have the equipment and the ability to do their job properly. They have done a tremendous job. I am extremely proud—and I am sure that everybody is—to see our armed forces excel.

However, as the Secretary of State made clear, there are important lessons to be learned from the report. I emphasise that it is an auditors' report, not a military report. We should bear that in mind. I am sure that anyone who was involved in drawing up the report has little military experience. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned.

We have made great inroads into the logistical chain in the military. Major new policies have been introduced on smart procurement and streamlining and rationing our supplies, equipment and stores, and on just-in-time technology to try to ensure that vital equipment gets to the right place at the right time. I think that we have made great progress in that respect. The Opposition accuse us of not being able to account for some body armour, a relatively small matter. In 1997, the Conservative Government could not account for a fleet of trains owned by the Ministry of Defence. The missing items included rolling stock, track, railway sidings, land, property—and even 600 horses for which the MoD was still responsible.

That is not so long ago, but in those days there was virtually no asset checking or auditing. It was a great innovation when someone sat down and asked, "What exactly do we own?" We need take no lessons from the Opposition about managing our stocks and assets, but we need to be careful and to take some elements in the report seriously. It states that, in some cases, equipment arrived only hours before it was needed in battle. Our armed forces were working in very difficult circumstances to prepare for dangerous conflict. We need to learn that lesson.

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the report's basic conclusion that the military did not receive all the necessary equipment on time? If body armour and filters had been received on time, our military personnel would have been better protected. Moreover, does he agree that that equipment would have arrived before military action took place if the rush to war had not been driven by the American Government?

Photo of John Smith John Smith Labour, Vale of Glamorgan

I do not accept that. The hon. Gentleman assumes that war is an exact science, but it is not. The problem is that, in the fog of war and military action, it is hard to know what is going on, and I shall give the House one example of that.

Mention has been made already of how British soldiers had to borrow equipment from their American counterparts. I know that they were very keen to borrow the Haagen Dazs ice cream available in the air-conditioned American tents in the battlefield. Also available there was food from McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken. However, some of the contractors supplying that food were not covered by war-zone insurance and so left as quickly as they could. As a result, British service personnel—and the RAF in particular—ended up feeding US military forces as well as their own.

There were many examples of coalition forces working together, often without all the necessary equipment, and often not in the environment in which they would choose to fight. But that is what war is all about. It is not an exact science, although it is crucial that we learn the lessons about support and supply by contractors.

I turn now to a matter that interests me greatly, the Defence Aviation Repair Agency. That agency is crucial to the recommendations in the report, and especially to the lessons that must be learned. What is clear is that the military cannot be asked to depend and rely on private sector techniques when it comes to the supply of components and essential equipment.

Having the proper equipment is vital. Enough of it must be held in store so that troops going into battle are adequately protected and supplied. A total reliance on private sector providers and on just-in-time supply could end in disaster. The report makes that clear, and it is right for the Government to look at the role of agencies in the Ministry of Defence. They offer all the benefits of a commercial organisation, and operate according to business and commercial imperatives, but remain wholly owned subsidiaries of the Ministry of Defence. They are able to compete with any private sector organisation in respect of component supply, deep repair and maintenance, but they remain integral parts of the MOD.

Those agencies are able to deliver for the military in the sort of unexpected circumstances that were encountered in the military action in Iraq. It is impossible to predict exactly what is going to happen, but the necessary supplies must be made available. It has been stated that personnel had to fly back to Britain to make sure that they got the equipment that they needed, but the Defence Aviation Repair Agency is an organisation that can meet all the demands of the taxpayer when it comes to value for money. Most importantly, it retains the surge capacity to meet the demands that arise when military action is taken.

One lesson to be drawn from the report, and from our experience in Iraq, is that the Government would do well to look the role played by such agencies. They are vital in ensuring that military personnel are put into the field, and sustained there. The agencies are not subject to the vagaries suffered by contractors and purely commercial organisations.

I am delighted that the Defence Aviation Repair Agency has appointed a new chief executive. He used to work for Rolls-Royce, and I hope to meet him very shortly. I am sure that we will discuss some of the lessons to be drawn from this excellent report.

Our soldiers were not placed at risk. No one should believe that. To say that they were is merely a piece of populist scaremongering. It is unfortunate that the Opposition should have decided to take that approach today. The Opposition spokesman, Mr. Soames, rightly began by paying tribute to the military's huge success in Iraq. If he had sat down then, this debate could have allowed us to pay tribute to the outstanding work of our servicemen and women and to have a serious discussion of the recommendations in the NAO report. Instead. the House was treated to a lot of petty and ill informed references to our forces' exposure to alleged risks that simply did not exist.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The hon. Gentleman should make his intentions clear. He sat down, and I would have been entitled to conclude that, after 20-odd minutes, he had finished his speech. Mr. Hancock.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

I think the rest of the House is with you on that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Mr. Smith has highlighted the fact that the report does not decry the efforts of the men and women who fought and won this war. However, it does identify a number of respects in which the Government failed to deliver. The Government promised that they would make sure that the men and women fighting on our behalf were properly equipped, and the report makes it clear that that did not happen. The hon. Gentleman has not explained that failure.

Photo of John Smith John Smith Labour, Vale of Glamorgan

I have not explained it because that is not what the report says. If we read the report, we see that it says that the military operation was a success, the support for our troops, especially in relation to chemical and biological weapons, was good, and the logistical operation was an outstanding success overall. That is what the report actually says. I am sure that time will be taken up by hon. Members trying—as the hon. Gentleman is already trying—to cast aspersions on the role of our forces and on the way in which they conducted themselves on the battlefield—

Photo of John Smith John Smith Labour, Vale of Glamorgan

Oh yes. And nothing could be further from the truth.Our forces had to move their massive operation from the north of the country to the south of the country, they won the battle within four weeks when some were predicting that it could take months, and they were up against a formidable enemy.

I have heard it said since the operation was completed that the Iraqi army was not a threat and that its military command was in disarray. That is simply not true. It was preparing for military assault and had probably based its preparation on observing Kosovo, as it clearly expected a long-drawn-out air bombardment followed by a land attack. Nothing could have been further from the truth. We moved in with such speed, agility and flexibility that we were able to win the war relatively quickly. We could not have done that had we not undertaken a strategic defence review and reconfigured our forces to make them agile, flexible and rapid, enabling us to put forward an expeditionary force of that nature in such a hostile environment. That is why I congratulate the Government on their leadership through this difficult period.

I have finished now, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea 2:11, 13 January 2004

I have an interest to declare because I am a director of BAE Systems plc. Most of my speech, however, will be about boots, clothing and spares for land vehicles, which are not products for which BAE is particularly noted.

I must say to Mr. Smith that among a number of rather foolish things that he said, particularly towards the end of his remarks, he suggested that my hon. Friend Mr. Soames had raised this matter for party political reasons. My hon. Friend's reputation goes before him. His reputation as the Minister for the Armed Forces under the previous Government established clearly in the minds of the House and in the minds of the armed forces that he speaks because of his concern for the condition and welfare of our armed forces. For that reason, what he said today carried a great deal of weight. As this is my first opportunity to congratulate him on his appointment, may I say that he makes a most splendid, slender adornment to the Front Bench?

Without wearying the House too much, I hope, I want to echo the congratulations to the Secretary of State on the distinguished public service order medal that he has received. I repeat that simply because I am a former holder of his office, and I therefore know that that award is not given lightly by the United States Government. In addition, it is the highest award for which he was eligible, and he has every reason to be extremely proud of it.

This is a most interesting report, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex balanced the weight that he gave to its positive comments about the deployment with the criticisms raised. I want to reflect that balance in my remarks if possible. It is perfectly true that 36,000 personnel were deployed. Interestingly, the report reminds us what the objectives of the exercise were and how quickly they were achieved. The first objective was the removal of Saddam's regime, which was accomplished within four weeks, and the second was to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. A number of Labour Members of Parliament might reflect ruefully on how that second challenge turned out to be slightly less steep and difficult than the Government had presented to the House. It was four weeks to victory, however, which was indeed an extraordinary accomplishment.

The report also reminds us of the particular areas in which praise was due to our armed forces: the successfully accomplished activities of the Amphibious Task Group; the seizure of the city of Basra, which was accomplished with terrific distinction and valour; and the 2,500-plus sorties flown by the Royal Air Force with great distinction, which made a substantial contribution to the air war.

A number of references have been made during this debate to the glorious period of Conservative Government some time back now. During our period in office, I do not remember a time when we were able to take much satisfaction over the performance of the Challenger tank, or indeed, any tank. I therefore read with enormous pleasure that the Challenger tank had performed well in Iraq. That was a logistical success because substantial adjustments were required. A dust mitigation plan had to be put into effect following the exercise in Oman in 2001. Appliqué armour was added to the tank, and the report records that the appliqué armour withstood all the assaults that were made on the tank by Iraqi forces. That is extremely good news, and all the more welcome because of the long history of problems with that piece of equipment.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell Labour, Linlithgow

Will the right hon. Gentleman add in his endorsement that those who were in charge of the Challenger tanks, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, performed with distinction?

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea

Yes, Mr. Dalyell raised this point earlier and rightly received from the Government Front Bench an endorsement of their performance. I am happy to say again that theirs was a most valiant, successful and courageous effort.

The other thing that I thought worth pointing out on the success side was the achievement of the Defence Transport and Movements Agency. The report records that it went out and secured 50,000 metres linear, as is the expression, of shipping capacity, which enabled the entire force to be lifted in a single movement, which is a terrific success.

I want to endorse one point made by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan, which is that the report reminds us that this was not the long war that many Members of the House had predicted. We did not fight hand to hand for weeks on end in Baghdad, as many had predicted. There were not an atrocious number of civilian casualties, as many had also predicted. Although the theme of this debate is accountability, I want to point out that those right hon. and hon. Members who make those gloomy predictions, and, by the way, who do so with fantastic monotony—in one campaign after another, we have to put up with what these doomsters predict for us—are never held to account. They never come back to the House to be asked why it is that once again they have got things wrong, and have contributed to lowering national morale at a time when we were about to deploy our forces.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health)

Would not my right hon. Friend agree, however, that many in the House were misled by the Government, who said that there were weapons of mass destruction, which has signally not been demonstrated? Members of the House are entitled to make the kind of predictions to which he has referred given the misinformation by the Government?

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea

I have already alluded, in perhaps a slightly flippant way, to the shortcomings of the information given to us by the Government in that respect, and I shall refer to that again later. Leaving aside for a moment the question of weapons of mass destruction, many of the other predictions made by right hon. and hon. Members were woefully askew of the truth and even of what was likely. We never see those people coming back to the House to talk about why they got things so wrong, however.

I did not get the impression from the Secretary of State today that his attitude was what one would expect from a man who was willing to learn the lessons. In line with what the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan said, those in the armed forces will of course understand that things go wrong. What they will expect from him, however, is an attitude of mind that means that he wants to absorb those lessons and make things better for the future. In that respect, if I may say so, the Secretary of State's demeanour this afternoon was unfortunate. To make a general comment, it is not his performance that generally gets him into difficulty but his demeanour.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Labour, South Dorset

I have listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman's comments about the Secretary of State. Has he read part 7 of the report, which is headed, "The Department has a comprehensive process for identifying lessons"? The report says clearly that the Secretary of State's Department is learning the lessons, identifying them, and moving forward as the House would expect.

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea

If one theme of today's debate is accountability, the other is leadership. The conviction with which the lesson-learning capability is pursued, and the success of the process, will depend crucially on the attitude of the Secretary of State. That is what leadership in the Department is all about. If the feeling runs through the Department that the Secretary of State thinks these matters need not be addressed urgently, and that it was more important to come here and make a political case than to show slightly more humility and say that things needed to be put right, a difficulty will be created.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I have listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman's observations. At the risk of appearing to plead the case for my defence, let me assure him that I commissioned the lesson-learning process undertaken by the Department. I made it clear, as I made it clear to the House today, that I wanted it to be rigorous, and did not want anyone to gloss over any of the difficulties that we face. The clear implication of that is that I want the lessons to be learnt properly. If I gave the right hon. Gentleman or the House the impression that I was not taking criticisms seriously, the right hon. Gentleman should accept that I was responsible for demanding that the Department look hard at the lessons that we had to learn.

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea

That would have made an outstanding paragraph in the Secretary of State's speech. I am sorry that we have had to drag it out of him now.

The criticisms relate to serious matters. For instance, 40 per cent. of the necessary uniforms and boots were not available by the time of the conflict. We have already discussed nuclear, biological and chemical suits at length, but I must echo a point made by both my hon. Friend Hugh Robertson and my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg, which is that it is particularly extraordinary that there should have been deficiencies in that regard, given the Government's emphasis on weapons of mass destruction in their original case for the war.

If politics is about one thing, it is about priorities. If the Secretary of State and his colleagues had made the case for the war on the basis that we must get rid of weapons of mass destruction, what could have been a greater priority for them than to equip the armed forces thoroughly so that they could meet that threat? That was a lacuna in the Secretary of State's speech. At one point there was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing across the Chamber over whether filters were necessary for the protection of troops. I did not feel that that did the Secretary of State any credit; it would have been better had he said much earlier that the filters had been necessary, and that he was sorry they had not been provided.

Some of the deficiencies led to almost farcical situations. The engines and main assemblies for combat vehicles could not be tracked down, although the Defence Logistics Organisation held information about the supplies. Because those in the field could not be sure that they would receive the equipment—although it was in the chain of supply—they had to "cannibalise" equipment in Germany to acquire duplicates. The Lynx anti-tank helicopter was available for only 53 per cent. of the time—the entire span of time, that is, not just the combat period.

The report is too fair to the Government in one respect. It makes the point—repeated by a number of Members today—that deployment took half the time that it took for the first Gulf war, but this war was seen coming much earlier than that one. No one knew at the end of July 1990 that Kuwait would be invaded, but our forces were in action in January the following year. In this case we saw the possibility of action in Iraq at least a year before it happened—some would say as long ago as 9/11, and, according to Paul O'Neill, the former US Treasury Secretary, as long ago as the day on which President Bush came to office.

Let me remind the Secretary of State that boots and uniforms are small items that could have been stocked without any implication that the Government were disingenuously and dishonestly planning for war. These are the bills for those items: desert boots £742,000, desert trousers £886,800, jackets about £1 million. Those are tiny amounts. Surely the Secretary of State had discretion to spend those amounts during the period before the war in order to ensure that our forces had the necessary equipment, given what was becoming a likelihood of their being deployed in a hot weather area.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Labour, South Dorset

Does the right hon. Gentleman not recall the fevered political atmosphere and intense media scrutiny in the run-up to military action? If the media had been able to report the procurement of those items and their deployment in theatre, that would have demonstrated that military action was inevitable and that the whole United Nations process was a sham. The point at which the UN process collapsed was the point at which the items could go into theatre.

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea

The hon. Gentleman speaks with appalling frankness. He underlines the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex, when the hon. Gentleman was probably not in the Chamber. My hon. Friend's point was that a lack of political will, courage and commitment led to the failure to order the equipment. I am allowing for that, however. Even given a Government who lacked those qualities, I believe that the Secretary of State could have ordered uniforms and boots without upsetting the entire United Nations process—or without anyone being led to think that it was being upset.

Let me say a little about the post-war position. As has been said, the report refers to a lack of preparation, but our forces have performed a brilliant post-war improvisation for which they deserve congratulations. Their success in Basra, and the way in which they have operated as an occupying force, is most impressive. I concede that Basra is an easier place than Baghdad in which to operate, and I do not think that we should jump to drawing facile comparisons between British and American forces, but I still think that what our forces have achieved is superb.

I say this to people who are going around spreading gloom. Of course our forces are in great danger from terrorism in Iraq today, but our history—particularly in Northern Ireland—suggests that there are many things we could do to overcome the terrorist threat, which would rapidly improve the situation and our forces' security. One possibility is the establishment of intelligence. Now that we are there and now that the Americans have been in theatre for some time, intelligence assets and the flow of intelligence are much improved. A second option is the disruption of the enemy's leadership. Clearly, the seizure of Saddam Hussein is a signal accomplishment in that regard. Thirdly, operational matters could be reviewed and changed. I am thinking particularly of the flying of helicopters by the United States.

This, I think, is the charge against the Secretary of State today. While the award he has received from the United States indicates that his strategic leadership was probably of a high order—that is obviously the opinion of the United States—I think that he has been responsible for important failures in his attention to detail. I think there was a lack of political courage at the end of 2002 which prevented the ordering of vital equipment, a failure to establish clear priorities, and a lack of political nous—a lack of understanding of what it was possible to do without matters being made public, or being seen to have broader implications than they actually had.

Until the Secretary of State intervened a moment ago, I thought that he had brought to the House a rather complacent tone that would not inspire confidence among the armed forces that he would heed the lessons that needed to be learnt. It might be useful if, in responding to the debate, the Minister of State demonstrated a humbler approach on the Government's part.

Let us hope that our forces will return safely at the appropriate time, so that we and their families can welcome them—just as the House took pleasure in welcoming the safe return of my hon. Friends the Members for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) and for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne).

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee 2:28, 13 January 2004

As Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, I do not wish to pre-empt my Committee's hearing on the operation next week. The recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and his staff at the National Audit Office, however, raises important issues on which the Committee will focus when taking evidence from Ministry of Defence officials, including the permanent secretary.

First, let me join others in paying tribute to the gallantry of the men and women of our armed forces whom we sent to fight in Iraq on our behalf. I congratulate those whose job was to deliver, support and recover them over such great distances. The United Kingdom coalition forces achieved their main military objectives: that must be said for the sake of balance. They removed Saddam Hussein and his regime and gained control of key locations and infrastructure within just four weeks. As the National Audit Office reports, UK forces, amounting to more than 45,000 personnel and 15,000 vehicles, were deployed in half the time taken for the first Gulf war.

I note the important point made by my right hon. Friend Mr. Portillo, but the fact is that those forces were deployed in time. Equipment performed well: production of the Storm Shadow cruise missile was brought forward and it was used to hit targets in Iraq. The troubled SA80 assault rifle, now upgraded, appeared to be a much more reliable performer. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea and others mentioned the Challenger 2 main battle tank. When my Committee examined the earlier exercise in Oman, it found that the tank suffered from major problems with sand entering its air filters, but, once properly modified for desert conditions, it performed impressively.

In the interest of balance—I am not here to make party political points—I reiterate that the Secretary of State said that, overall, the logistic effort was successful and key equipment was delivered. The Secretary of State made that point many times, and we accept it, but we are now talking about a National Audit Office report. The National Audit Office is perfectly entitled, within the totality of a successful effort, to draw attention to particular shortcomings. Underlying the overall success, there were some difficulties, where major performance improvements need to be made. My Committee will be asking tough questions of the permanent secretary next week.

There are two particular aspects of concern: first, the lack of protective kit for troops in the front line; and the failure yet again of logistic systems, leading to confusion about the location of key supplies. The National Audit Office report makes it abundantly clear that our troops at the front line were short of a range of vital equipment when the war began. I find it astonishing that we could send our men and women into action without the right kit. For example, there was a lack of potentially life-saving body armour. Incredibly, as has been said by others, given the rationale for the war, our forces were short of vital biological and chemical warfare protection equipment, and they were again short of the correct desert clothing and boots. What lay behind that unsatisfactory state of affairs?

The National Audit Office has reported that the Ministry of Defence did not have enough supplies of important items on the shelves, including chemical and biological warfare protection equipment, spares for armoured vehicles and the right desert clothing. We do not need to engage in a party political debate to apportion blame between the parties, but we do need—I look carefully at the Minister as I say this—to talk about mistakes in an honest and open way, and learn from them.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

I entirely agree with the Minister. Indeed, that is how my Committee will try to act, as it does after and before every conflict.

Much of the £600 million made available by the Treasury was used to address the shortages, some of which, as we know, the Ministry of Defence had been aware of for several years. Such urgent procurement action carries a number of risks, which became apparent. For example, some equipment or stock purchased urgently was not available in time. Only 40 per cent. of the extra desert clothing was delivered by the time that UK forces had taken Basra, and modifications to the AS90 self-propelled gun, to enable it to work properly in the hottest desert conditions, were not fitted until the war-fighting phase was over. The Ministry now has to take cognisance of the point made several times during the debate that the circumstances were different from those of the first Gulf war. In the light of what happened in Operation Saif Sareea, such difficulties were obviously going to arise.

The last-minute procurement also means limited time to train on new arms. For example, the National Audit Office report tells us that the Minimi light machine gun was issued to battle groups of the 7th Armoured Brigade less than a week before hostilities began, with few spare parts and without the equipment for zeroing the weapons. The failure to have the right stocks was compounded by the Ministry of Defence assuming that there would be time for suppliers to make up the shortages before going to war. In many examples, such as desert clothing, that was not the case.

I make no comment about what was going on in the political process at the time. It may have had an impact, but surely it was all foreseeable. Surely it was obvious many months earlier that a war in the desert was likely, and the kit could have been purchased in time. In next week's hearing—and, I hope, in our report—we will press the Ministry of Defence on why that was not done. The late delivery of the urgent items meant either that our troops did not have important pieces of equipment, or that, when it arrived at the last minute, they had little opportunity to familiarise themselves with new weapons and equipment.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Liberal Democrat, South East Cornwall

I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the shortages were caused by a reduction in stockholdings, supposedly to reduce costs. When things have to be procured at the last moment, it is easy to be the victim of those who are prepared to sell them at a certain price. The perceived cost saving is often illusory and one can end up paying as much, if not more, than if an item was in stock in the first place.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

That is a fair point, but I do not believe that so far we have discovered any instances of war profiteering, which clearly took place in previous conflicts. Still, as I said, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but is it the best way to send our soldiers into battle—in the wrong clothing, missing vital items and with unfamiliar weapons?

Another major cause of the shortages is all too familiar to my Committee. The National Audit Office reported that in several cases equipment made it to Kuwait, but the lack of an effective logistics tracking system prevented it from being delivered to the front line. The report paints a picture of muddle and confusion. Troops who should have been preparing themselves for the forthcoming conflict were forced to search containers scattered across Kuwait for supplies that had gone missing.

I make the point to Mr. Smith—he has unfortunately had to leave after making his comments this afternoon—that we all recognise that in the fog of war it is not easy to track assets to and through the front line, but it surely would have been possible, given all the warning that we had and in the light of modern technology, to have had a better asset-tracking system in the rear areas in Kuwait. That is the point. I fully accept what the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan said. We realise, given the vast amount of supplies being issued, that it is far more difficult and complicated to get a system that works for the Ministry of Defence than it is to track supplies across a supermarket. Everyone knows that and everyone agrees with the Secretary of State when he says that it is a difficult problem. However, with enough thought and commitment, the problem can be overcome.

The most disturbing example is probably that the biological and chemical filters for armoured vehicles had disappeared—a point made several times in the debate. When the war started, none of our armed vehicles had the working filters. Indeed, by the time that National Audit Office staff went to Iraq in June 2003, they had still not appeared. We should be thankful that Saddam Hussein's regime did not, in the event, have the dreadful weapons ready for use against our forces, but it is not good enough for the Ministry of Defence to give the impression, as did the Secretary of State in the debate, that the filters were not needed because the troops inside the vehicles would have had the right clothing. How could they perform adequately in those conditions? That point was well made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea, so I shall not labour it, and my Committee can return to it.

Every report that my Committee has produced for major operations—from the first Gulf war onwards—has highlighted the supply tracking issue. Time and again the inability to track supplies has caused significant difficulties. Time and again, the Ministry of Defence has assured us that the problem is being addressed. We will ask the MOD to assure us that implementation of its own lessons and the repeated recommendations from Committees of the House are taken seriously.

In reply to my predecessor's report on operations in Iraq in 1990–91, we were assured that action had been taken to improve both the management of movements and the tracking of assets, and that the Department had developed for its own use those commercial systems that it considered represented best practice. I emphasise the fact that the Ministry of Defence said that in 1991, which is quite a long time ago—long before the recent conflict. Following my predecessor's report on operations in the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s, and on operations three years later in Kosovo, the MOD was again promising improvements to its systems. Yet last year, my Committee was still concerned about asset tracking on the exercise in Oman. The House, speaking on behalf of British troops, who will doubtless be sent to war again, has the right to ask what is going on inside the MOD, and whether sufficient commitment is being shown on this issue.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

When my hon. Friend looks at these matters in his capacity as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, will he ensure that an examination is made of the lessons that could have been implemented post-Operation Saif Sareea 2, in Oman? They could have made a significant difference to the logistical supply in Operation Telic, and such information is highlighted in figure 12 of the NAO report.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

I am very grateful for that intervention, and I shall myself refer to figure 12, which is a key element of the report. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this issue. We did report on Operation Saif Sareea and we made a number of recommendations. We gave credit to the MOD, particularly with regard to the main battle tank. Of course, there was a lot of publicity about that issue at the time. It was meat and water to the tabloid press that our tanks could not perform properly. But the tabloid press do not necessarily go on about an asset-tracking system, because it is not in the forefront of political debate. Given that the MOD offered absolute assurances in respect of 1990–91 and the mid-1990s, my Committee and others have a right to ask why so little has been done. It is right to point out that our report should highlight that fact, and we should be prepared to return to this issue.

One or two others have mentioned the post-war part of the operation, but even so, perhaps not enough emphasis has been placed on it. It is clear that since the end of major fighting, our forces in southern Iraq have made a fantastic effort to improve security and the quality of life of its people. The NAO report clearly pays tribute to our troops and to the MOD, but it also points out that the armed forces could not be expected to meet the post-war challenge alone, and that, in the early stages, they were not properly supported by either Government Departments or coalition agencies. I am sure that shortly, my hon. Friend Mr. Swayne, who is aware of what was going on, will be able to address these points with far more local knowledge than I ever could. However, it is clear that extra planning was needed, and that extra help should have been given to our armed forces. It was clear for some time that the war was likely, yet the Government failed to produce a co-ordinated plan in the aftermath of the conflict.

I have tried during my brief remarks to give credit where it is due, but also to do my duty and to point to deficiencies where they exist; indeed, that is the role of the NAO and the PAC. What is now important is to ensure that these lessons are not just commented on and are the subject of this important debate, but are learned and followed through. We will not only question the permanent secretary closely next week, I myself shall ask the Comptroller and Auditor General—I cannot order him; I can only ask him—to consider returning to this subject in a year or two, so that we can test the MOD on what lessons have been learned. We owe nothing less to our troops.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West 2:44, 13 January 2004

Following as I do the outstanding analysis by my right hon. Friend Mr. Portillo and my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh, I am put under a certain amount of pressure. I shall endeavour not to lower the tone of the debate and to maintain the standard that they have set, although to do so will be difficult.

I want to deal with part 5 of the report, and particularly paragraphs 5.8 to 5.10, which deal with the contribution of the reservists. Before doing so, I draw the House's attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. I recall sitting in Nasirya and reading in a rather dated Sunday broadsheet, perhaps some two weeks after it was published, a criticism of our policy of deploying reservists for Operation Telic and Operation Telic 2. It said that that amounted to conscription on a scale not seen since the Korean war and the Suez crisis. I thought, "That is a monstrous travesty that bears no relation at all to the truth." Members of the reserves are not conscripts. Those who sign up to a Territorial or other reservist commitment are made fully aware of their liability. Equally, I do not believe that anyone signs up to the armed forces, be it regular or reserve, without some hope that they will actually see operations. Nobody wants to spend their military career back at the depot, training or counting blankets.

The reality is that a compulsory call-out notice actually provides liberation for many reservists who perhaps would have liked to serve and to meet an FTRS—full-time reserve service—commitment of some sort, but who were unable, because of the commitments imposed by family or career, suddenly to enjoy the relative financial advantage and job security presented and guaranteed to them by a call-out notice. Such a notice would enable them to do what they always wanted to do, which is serve in the armed forces; indeed, that was certainly the case for me. However, I should point out to Ministers that we should treat that situation with great caution and care. Ministers are right to say that employers have been very tolerant during Operations Granby and Telic—more so than we might have anticipated.

The armed services themselves have taken great account of employers' needs. For example, the Ministry of Defence has allowed 70 per cent. of appeals against the call-up of key employees, so there has been give and take on both sides. But the difficulty will come if we continue to maintain a high-tempo use of reservists on what have become low-intensity peacekeeping operations on only a medium scale. If we go on at that rate, we will quickly exhaust the reserves.

I thoroughly enjoyed my commitment, but I have family and I have now come back and have a career to resume. Indeed, that is the case for many individuals, who are quite prepared to put their civilian career and family on the back-burner because their country needs them in an emergency. Those people have done their six months, and it is very difficult to tell them in 12 or 18 months' time, "We need you again." We are entitled to ask them to serve again, because they have signed up to that commitment, but for how long would employers be prepared to wear that, in a situation that could not be described as a national emergency? We would quickly find that being a member of the reserve forces became a badge of unemployment, because only people without proper jobs would be able so to serve. There are those who are serial mobilisers—who always want to go on operations. They are very important and welcome, but they are a minority. The reserve forces would be very much the poorer without the people with proper jobs who make such commitments.

While out in the Gulf, I read a considerable amount of press comment to the effect that the participation of the reserves had been something of a disaster: no kit and no pay, and the regular Army short-toured and pushed off, leaving the reservists in theatre. It really was not like that at all.

I shall consider those issues in reverse order. The first is tour length. Given the administrative burden and expense of mobilising reservists—for every Territorial Army soldier mobilised, one and a half must be called out, whereas for regular Army reservists the ratio is eight to one—I can understand the desire to make maximum use of them. However, reservists are volunteers and must feel that they are being treated fairly. The sense of unfairness that arose when regular Army personnel were seen to have short tours and TA personnel were given longer ones was caused not by discrimination but by the lack of a policy. It is now the policy that if a reservist goes out into theatre in service with a formed unit, he will return with that unit. If he goes out as an augmentee, he will serve six months. At least that policy gives reservists an end-of-tour date, which is vital for those with civilian careers.

On the issue of pay, it should have been predictable that there would be an enormous strain on the Army's administrative structure in delivering pay to those individuals who had been called out. We must not underestimate the anxiety caused to those individuals—fortunately, they were relatively few—who had problems with their pay. It is an enormous strain to be mobilised, sent far from home and have agonised calls from one's wife saying that bills have to be paid but the cheque has not arrived. We have solved that problem at a stroke by allowing the mobilisation structure at Chilwell to set up the pay accounts.

The reservists' principal grievance arises from the fact that the reserve standard allowance—the element of the pay that compensates them for the loss of their civilian earnings, which can be much higher—has been bound by rank constraints that are inappropriate in civilian life. The decision to abandon that constraint will wipe out that grievance, and I ask the Minister to confirm when that policy will be implemented, if it has not been implemented already.

The final issue is the lack of kit. When I reached the Gulf in early July, there was no problem with the supply of any of the items that have been mentioned. However, I cannot understand why we make body armour for an army of midgets. Finding a suit of armour that fitted was a problem throughout the theatre of operations. I could not find one to accommodate my girth and I do not usually have a problem in that respect.

There was no shortage of supply, but I spoke to many people who had been in the Gulf for Telic 1 and who were very angry about kit shortages. The Secretary of State made considerable amends in his intervention in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea, but in his own speech he gave the impression that because the operation was a success, we got away with it and everything was all right. He may not have meant to give that impression, and indeed he confirmed that in the subsequent intervention. However, we have been trying to draw attention to the fact that we have been taught that lesson before. We got away with it then, so we have carried on as before. Our point, in this debate, is that the failings could have been catastrophic. The principal reason given for the invasion of Iraq was its possession of WMD, and if they had been utilised we would be talking not about the success of the operation, but about the heavy and avoidable casualties. It was therefore appropriate to deal with the issue in precisely the way my hon. Friend Mr. Soames did.

I wish to put down a marker with respect to chapter 6 of the report, which states, in point 6.4:

"It was a Government wide responsibility to plan for the post-conflict period."

The report continues with measured and fairly light criticism of the Government's preparations, but that does not do justice to the lack of preparations that prevailed. The Secretary of State says that we must accept the report's conclusions and not cherry-pick, but I do not follow his logic. The report does not do justice to the Government's failure to plan for post-war reconstruction. We did fantastically well, as hon. Members have said. It is incredible that the British Army is able to move so swiftly and seamlessly from a high-intensity war role to a peace support operation requiring the most delicate touch. The Army is magnificent at that. It is also magnificent at improvising and flying by the seat of its pants.

One of the strengths of the regular Army was identifying the skills of reservists from their civilian careers and using them effectively in the reconstruction efforts. For example, those people whose job it is to build electricity pylons in the UK have been deployed to do just that in Iraq. However, everyone to whom I spoke thought it was obvious that we had no plan for after the war. That is equally true of the US, but it is not good enough to say, "Oh well, the US did not have a plan and it was the principal partner in the enterprise." The Opposition attempted to draw attention to the deficit in at least four debates in this Chamber in the build-up to the war. We were reassured and told that the matter was in hand, but it was not. I do not blame the MOD, because the deficit lies more with the Department for International Development. Therefore I shall not pursue the point any further in this debate, but I put down a marker on this subject because it is one to which I shall definitely return in future.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health) 2:58, 13 January 2004

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Swayne. He and I are at risk of boring for Britain on the subject of Iraq for many years to come. I suspect that he would agree that by the time that we arrived in theatre, the logistics were good. However, the report deals with the phase before our arrival—the fighting of the war and immediately thereafter—and I shall confine my attention to that.

I declare an interest, in that I am a reservist and underwent compulsory mobilisation as part of Operation Telic between 15 September and 7 November. I was honoured to serve with 40 Regiment Royal Artillery near Az Zubayr in southern Iraq. I had the pleasure of meeting the Secretary of State for Defence at Saddam's garish palace on the Shatt al-Arab at Basra, when we exchanged a few words. The Minister of State will not be aware that he and I narrowly avoided one another at Shaibah, when his Sea King helicopter disappeared in an impressive plume of dust just as I arrived in my battlefield ambulance. I understood from a conversation with colleagues shortly thereafter that the Minister promised them lots of extra money for Defence Medical Services, for which they were most grateful. Mr. Hoyle will also be grateful because he was particularly exercised earlier about the plight of the defence medical services.

Operation Telic was an extraordinary exercise in logistics. In the shock and awe of battle, it is easy to forget that all operations have a long and complex logistics tail that is just as much part of the success of the operation as the biting part. It has become fashionable to identify a scapegoat and there is a risk that the logisticians will win that role. One of them pointed out to me that the fault lies with their political masters—of course it does—in saying that the provisioning of our forces should be just in time, not just in case. That is in marked contrast with the Americans. Those of us who have visited Iraq, including Ministers, will have seen the huge American logistics operation by contrast with our own. Their business is far bigger than ours for sure, but the Americans subscribe to the belief that they need to prepare for all eventualities in a way we do not—contrasting our empty shelves with the Americans' full shelves.

We have heard about the tragedy of Sergeant Roberts, who lost his life through want of body armour. When I was in Iraq I spoke to a number of servicemen and women who had been involved in the handover of ceramic armour plating to personnel deemed to be at greater risk. Apart from the tragedy that that obviously invites, do Ministers have any idea of the extent to which such an incident can affect the morale of troops? In operations such as Telic, there is no front line or reserve. Everyone is in it together. Have Ministers reflected on how difficult it must be for a field commander to administer such a situation? There is great unhappiness about that particular incident, which to my mind was completely avoidable.

It is not just having stacks of kit on shelves that matters. Quality is also an issue. A Warminster lady wrote to me during the summer about her Royal Marine grandson who sent her a plaintive letter asking for kit to be bought from Milletts and sent to him, because his standard-issue boots and much else besides had disintegrated. They were not "fit for purpose".

Before Christmas I asked the Prime Minister why military vehicles were not fitted with the kit necessary to protect them fully from incoming missiles. I questioned why our troops had to put up with pieces of chicken wire strung across windscreens for their protection. I was told that the vehicle protection kits would not be comprehensively fitted until well into the new year—despite the excellent Army repair organisation based in Warminster, which is ready and able to get that job done.

The Secretary of State has presided over a veritable explosion of small to medium-scale operations since 1997 and had a long lead-in to the Iraq conflict. There was plenty of time to lay in sufficient body armour, ensure that desert boots would not melt in the heat and arrange for vehicle protection kits to be comprehensively fitted. A myriad other deficiencies are cited in the NAO report. In our congratulatory mood, it is important to remember that we are not here to congratulate the Government on a successful operation but to suggest ways in which the situation might be improved for the future. I hope that when the Minister winds up, he will echo the belated remarks of the Secretary of Secretary of State extracted by my right hon. Friend Mr. Portillo.

I refer next to the reserve forces that were so crucial to Operation Telic. I was rather chuffed to receive recently in the post—I suspect in common with thousands of other reservists—a certificate signed in facsimile by the Secretary of State. It thanked me for my service in Iraq and for

"the valuable contribution you have made to the nation's defence."

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West may have received such a certificate.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health)

If not, that is something to which he can look forward. Perhaps the Secretary of State was being ironic, because at the risk of sounding churlish, whatever Operation Telic was about it had little to do with the defence of the nation—as I thought Ministers had by now admitted.

The reserve forces are now much more than territorials engaged in the defence of the homeland, so the change of designation from Territorial Army to Army Reserve makes a great deal of sense. It will be warmly welcomed by my reservist colleagues as overdue recognition of the fact that they truly stand shoulder to shoulder with their Regular Army counterparts.

Saying that reservists will be used increasingly as an arm of Government foreign policy but that their strength will be cut by 15 per cent makes little sense. Ministers cannot expect to dip into a contracting pool of reserves at will. If people with day jobs in civilian life are repeatedly put upon, they will vote with their feet. I am staggered by the extent to which the Government are taking reservists and their employers for granted. The National Audit Office report claims that the MOD has recognised that financial assistance is necessary to prevent reservists from being disadvantaged because of mobilisation. I will give the Minister a small example. Reservists returning from theatre can be forgiven for being cynical on discovering that months of operational service will not count in full towards their annual reserve commitment. To discharge that commitment, they will have to tell their families and employers that they will have to spend a couple of weekends square bashing in Aldershot. That seems absolute nonsense. It is a good example of the way in which reservists are disadvantaged and of why they might decide that enough is enough and leave. If reservists do not make that choice, in many cases their families will do so.

Most employers are sympathetic to releasing staff during the acute phase of a conflict—particularly if they perceive that the conflict has to do with the security of the homeland. Employers become rather less enthusiastic when it seems that their good will is being abused. Last year I asked Ministers which employers they had met to discuss future commitments to Iraq, as it seems that Operation Telic is likely to run and run. Apparently the big conversation does not extend to the Ministry of Defence, because we understand that no such meetings have been held. Recent years have seen conflicts in Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq—all of which means that Ministers have had plenty of practice in the sort of conflict that the Government predict for the future. There can be no excuse for not getting it right next time. I hope that our servicemen and women—regulars and reservists—can look forward to the Government taking on board the learning points that the NAO has kindly offered up in its helpful contribution.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire 3:08, 13 January 2004

I begin by paying a warm tribute on behalf of Members on both sides of the House, and on behalf of all members of the Territorial Army, to my hon. Friend and neighbour Dr. Murrison, who spoke so well about several TA issues, and to my hon. Friend Mr. Swayne. Both of them spoke with huge knowledge both about what happened during Operation Telic and about what is happening to the TA and the reserves in general. I hope that the Ministry of Defence and others will listen carefully to what they said. Both my hon. Friends made important speeches from the point of view of their colleagues in the TA, who will very much respect the fact that they have spoken so well for them today.

I shall not try to replicate what other Members have said so well about the detail of the National Audit Office report. Issues were raised about nuclear, biological and chemical protection, in terms of indicators and filters for military vehicles. There have been questions about desert combat kit, which is terribly important and was in extremely short supply, and about body armour. The terrible and worrying case of the sergeant has been mentioned twice, but it may not be the only one to have arisen owing to the shortage of body armour.

It is interesting that 200,000 sets of body armour were produced at the time of Kosovo. I understand that currently there are about 94,000 soldiers in the British Army, so if my arithmetic is right there are two sets of body armour for each of them, including all those who were left at home. How there could have been a shortage of the stuff in the Gulf and how—as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West said—it could have been designed for midgets astonishes me.

I join my hon. Friend Mr. Soames and others in paying a huge tribute to the logistic operations during Operation Telic. My visit to Iraq as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme confirmed that by and large we put 46,000 troops in broadly speaking the right places, with broadly speaking the right equipment. It is right to pay tribute to the armed services and to the logistics organisations. I pay particular tribute to two organisations in my constituency, the 9 Supply Regiment—one of the two supply regiments responsible for getting all the kit out to the Gulf—based at Lavington, and RAF Lineham, whose Hercules also played a significant part in transporting the kit.

I have visited the two port and maritime regiments, one of which is regular and the other TA, which, in turn, manned the ports at Southampton and at Umm Qasr. The TA unit served for nine months; there is only one such unit and any operation overseas depends on its service. I pay tribute to all those units.

By and large, it is right to say that the logistics operation was a superb success, but that is not to diminish the criticisms in the NAO report. I was puzzled by the Secretary of State's remarks earlier, as he seemed to be saying that because the overall military operation was successful we should not ask questions about the means whereby that success was achieved. We accept that the operation was successful; there is no question about that. None the less, it is reasonable that we should ask questions about deficiencies in the kit and equipment or about the general conduct of the campaign. It is important to ensure that such deficiencies do not recur in any subsequent similar engagement. It is ridiculous to suggest that because the NAO report concludes that the overall campaign was good and worked well—I am happy to acknowledge that—it is illegitimate to ask questions about equipment deficiencies.

The Secretary of State also said that if the military commanders on the ground had said that the troops were not ready they would not have gone in, and that proved that they had all the necessary equipment. That argument seems equally fatuous. Of course the military commanders would not have gone to war if they not had the equipment. Indeed, there would have been an historic national and international scandal had that ever occurred. It is impossible to imagine that such a thing could have ever occurred throughout the long history of the British services. Of course, broadly speaking, the forces had the right amount of equipment to go into battle; it would have been bizarre if the military commanders had said that the forces were not operationally capable of saluting, turning to the right and marching off to do their duty. Of course they did, and we respect that fact.

To say that that was the case is not to dismiss the criticism that the armed forces did not have all the equipment that they should have had. Of course they went into battle. Of course they were operationally ready to go, but it is none the less legitimate for the House to put questions about some of the deficiencies mentioned by the NAO report and for us to try to ensure that the same things do not happen in any subsequent war.

When the Minister of State replies to the debate, I hope that he will not try to reiterate the specious argument that because the operation was successful and the military commanders agreed to go into battle it proves that "Everything is all right, Guv". Everything was not all right and the report proves it.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend is making an important point. The decision about when operations should commence was taken in partnership with coalition commanders and, as he suggests, the idea that a British commander would say, "We're not going because we haven't got the right kit," is preposterous. Broadly, the forces had the right equipment. Does he agree, however, that part of the success of our armed forces is their ability to hoist lessons on board and to change? It is puzzling that the important lessons that followed consecutive operations and Saif Sareea do not seem to have been learned. To what does my hon. Friend attribute that?

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. He is right. Our services have always been very good at making do and mending. They will achieve what they are told to achieve, irrespective of how poor the standard of their equipment may be. But, as he says, we have had a series of conflicts during the past five to 10 years—probably more than since the second world war: Sierra Leone, Kosovo, the Balkans and Gulf War 1. Operation Saif Sareea 2 is especially important in that context, as the exercise was almost identical to what occurred in Telic. Lessons should have been learned and carried through by the time that Operation Telic occurred a year later.

One of the most salient points in the NAO report is that the lessons of Saif Sareea 2 had not been learned; they were not put in place for Operation Telic. For example, during Saif Sareea 2 great play was made of the fact that the air filters for the Challenger 2 tanks were not of the correct specification, so they clogged up with sand. The tanks were configured for operation in western Europe where conditions are relatively humid, and the large amount of sand in the air intakes clogged up the filters, although a friend who is a tank commander tells me that standard procedure is to stop the tank every now and again, take out the filters and give them a good bang on the ground, which effectively gets rid of the sand. The failure to do that was part of the problem during Saif Sareea, and the lessons do not yet seem to have been learned.

The NAO report also mentioned the lack of NBC filters in all armoured vehicles. As I understand it, duff filters are used in training and it is standard operating procedure to remove them from the vehicles as soon as an operation is likely and replace them with effective filters. However, no such filters were supplied to the 25,000 vehicles that were carted out to Iraq.

It is important that the Government reply to our questions about why all that happened. We all very much hope that this does not happen, but if there is to be another such operation, we need guarantees from the Government that such things will not happen again. The purpose of the debate is to call attention to some of those shortfalls, and I hope that the Government will now learn the lessons of the filters, the body armour and the desert combat kit.

Some soldiers in my constituency tell me that they were issued with two left boots. That is an Army joke; it happens to be the case. The quartermaster sergeant said, "I'm very sorry; I haven't got a pair of boots for you. I'll give you two left boots and if you bring them back later on, I'll try to exchange them." Equally, some soldiers were issued with the wrong size of boot, and they were told, "Never mind that you are size 12, gentlemen, all I've got is size 7. If you take them just now and bring them back later on, I'll try to exchange them for you." That may be silly, but it is not acceptable.

I discovered one or two other deficiencies in equipment during my visit to Iraq. Incidentally, I pay tribute to the armed forces parliamentary scheme and Sir Neil Thorne who runs it so extremely well. I was one of half a dozen hon. Members who were the first civilians, apart from Ministers, to visit in Iraq back in the early part of June, and it was superb that we were able to do so. However, one or two things that I picked up there are worth thinking about.

First, water is absolutely essential in such an operation. One of the biggest changes since the time when I was in the TA is that it is now normal to supply bottled water to troops, but the trouble with bottled water lying around in the sun in a place such as Iraq is that it is almost boiling on the sand. It could not be cooled down, as no water-cooling mechanism was supplied to our troops. It might be worth thinking about that in future.

It might also be worth thinking about a greater degree of air conditioning, which the Americans have, but we did not have at that stage. Apart from anything else, our computers did not operate because of that lack of air conditioning. There was a significant amount of computer downtime, apparently because of the high temperatures. When I was there, it was 46° C in the shade—120 or 130° F in old terms—and the computer simply seized up in that heat.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, who was on the same trip.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow Anniesland

Perhaps I can call the hon. Gentleman a friend because, as he rightly suggests, we were in Basra together. Does he agree that the air-conditioned tents that had been promised very early on were also missing and that, in temperatures of 52° C, more of those tents were required, particularly at night, when it did not get much below 45°?

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, quite right. Air conditioning may sound like a luxury, but in those conditions in the heat of the summer, it becomes a basic necessity, not only for sleeping and eating accommodation, which was sometimes absolutely oven-like, but for offices. I visited a number of logistics offices where computers and other equipment had seized up and was unable to operate simply because of the heat—leaving aside the personal convenience and comfort of the soldiers involved. We need to find ways to supply units that are air-conditioned more easily or, indeed, little air-conditioning units themselves, which can be easily fitted in ordinary tents. We saw that in some places, where air-conditioning equipment was supplied.

We must not forget about water-cooling systems. I was struck by the fact that a tank driver discovered that, by some curious means—my science is not good enough to explain—putting a bottle of water into a wet sock and driving it through the desert cools down the water. That was the only means that our soldiers had to make their water palatable. Perhaps we ought to find ways to supply water-cooling equipment in the future.

I also discovered more serious circumstances when I was out there, and the following story is known. The third echelon—in other words, the people who are right at the very back—were issued with two bullets each at the beginning of Telic 1. The argument might be that they were in the third echelon, right at the back, so they were in no danger and did not need bullets. That would have been a good argument for not issuing them with weapons either, but it is, quite frankly, absurd to issue a weapon with two bullets.

I believe that that situation was corrected after a couple of months, but during the peak of Telic 1, back on 18 March and thereafter, those soldiers were deployed to Kuwait—quite a long way back from the fighting—with only two bullets. That was silly in itself. One group of people in particular was badly affected: the fuel tanker drivers who were driving from Kuwait to the front line. They, too, had two bullets each, and it was necessary to have a whip-round around the unit and for the boys to chuck their two bullets into a hat so that the tanker drivers who were going up to the front line would have something like a magazine full of bullets. That is just absurd. We were not short of bullets; there was no reason to be quite so sparing with them, but I am told that that story is true. [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head and says that that it is not true, but I went to Iraq and that is what the soldiers told me. I cannot think why they would possibly make it up.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I was listening to what the hon. Gentleman was saying and commenting to my Front-Bench colleagues. Those stories may well be anecdotal, but we need to get to the bottom of them. Conservative Members have raised similar issues, which we are investigating, but it is interesting that the report never picked up those stories. If there was an institutional failure, I should have thought it would have come to the fore.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I apologise for misinterpreting the shake of the Minister's head. He is right that there was not an institutional failure. The logistical exercise was extremely good overall, given that 46,000 troops found themselves in broadly speaking the right place with broadly speaking the right kit. However, that does not necessarily diminish the importance of highlighting such little instances—although there was probably a perfectly legitimate reason for the situation that I mentioned—to ensure that the same thing does not happen again.

It is right that all hon. Members are ready to congratulate all aspects of the armed forces on the superb job that they did during Telic 1 and continue to do during Telic 2—and perhaps Telic 3 and 4 and so on—and for us to say that it was a fine operation and that the logistics operation broadly speaking went extremely well. However, it is also entirely legitimate and sensible for Conservative Members to highlight several extremely worrying deficiencies—the problems with nuclear, biological and chemical kit and desert body armour are especially worrying. We do that not to have a pop at the Government, because I broadly congratulate them on what they did, but so that we can ensure that the same deficiencies do not arise in the future.

I hope that the Minister will not wind up the debate by using a party political self-defence mechanism and asking, "Why are you saying these awful things about us?" I would prefer him to come to the Dispatch Box to say, "I accept very much of what the Opposition have said. I believe that we did our best, but we got some of these things wrong. I thank the Opposition for calling this most interesting and useful debate today and make a commitment that I will act without any delay whatever to put the deficiencies right."

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Defence) 3:26, 13 January 2004

We have had an interesting and good debate in which we have heard six Back-Bench contributions, although I am sorry that only one Government Back Bencher was able to support his Front Bench. Mr. Smith is what the British Army normally refers to as an area weapon, because he is as much a danger to his own side as the other. However, he spoke with great passion and I am sure that the Secretary of State was grateful to him.

My right hon. Friend Mr. Portillo was generous, as usual, and spoke with great authority, balance and fairness from his experiences and as a former Secretary of State. I endorse his view, although the Secretary of State intervened to correct him when he said that the Secretary of State began the debate by giving the impression of complacency. I spoke this weekend to three officers in the armed forces, two of whom had been out in Iraq and one of whom served in the first Gulf war and was responsible for sending equipment and men to Iraq. They think that Ministers will react to the National Audit Office report by saying that measures to deal with lessons learned will be implemented, but fear that although a few will be implemented, many will not. My right hon. Friend hit the nail on the head by picking out the two themes of the debate as accountability and leadership.

My hon. Friend Mr. Leigh, as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, effectively gave the permanent secretary a warning order of the kind of questions that the Committee will ask. He tried to be fair and balanced while pointing out the need for improvements and the fact that we must learn lessons. It is a common theme among Conservative Members that however one looks at the NAO report, it documents the fact that a series of reports over the past decade by the NAO, the Public Accounts Committee and the Defence Committee have highlighted the same lessons again and again. Some measures have been implemented to address those, but box 12 in the NAO report makes grim reading because many have not been introduced for one reason or another.

If we have done nothing else by calling the debate, we have performed a duty by putting the Government on a warning order, not least because the Secretary of State stood at the Dispatch Box just before Christmas to announce his defence White Paper. He knows that the White Paper is challenging because no resources are attached to it. He talks about the need for radical changes to culture and organisation and for the introduction of new equipment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea and others were fair in asking, if we do not learn the lessons of past campaigns and implement them, what chance do the armed forces have of believing that the defence White Paper will deliver the operational and logistical systems that will be required to meet the new challenges that the Government have rightly faced up to?

My hon. and gallant Friend Mr. Swayne spoke with great authority both about his experience in the Gulf and about reservists. I think that I have captured the spirit of his remarks in saying that if we continue with an intensive call up of reservists for low-level operations, we will eventually run out of reservists. That major challenge for the Government was also raised by my hon. and gallant Friend Dr. Murrison, who made a thoughtful and balanced contribution about logistics and the need to prepare for all eventualities. He spoke with a great sensitivity about the impact of deaths on our troops, particularly in accidents. Naturally, we are all grateful that in recent conflicts the number of casualties among our own personnel has been limited because on the whole they have been well organised and trained. They have gone in quickly, and have been fortunate to work in a coalition and deal with an enemy who, on the whole, was not capable of a serious challenge. However, we should all accept that the public are demanding that casualty avoidance should be a new principle of war. That applies not just to casualties among our troops but, ironically, to casualties on the other side and among civilians. If we accept that that has become a public requirement, it puts enormous strain on the Ministry of Defence, Ministers and the defence budget in providing the basic protection that would have amazed my father's and grandfather's generation. Indeed, in a strange way, they would probably have regarded it as rather wimpish. However, those are the stakes for which we are now playing.

The missing 200,000 sets of body armour are no longer just a quartermaster's nightmare. When preparing to implement proposals in the defence White Paper, the Secretary of State must make certain that, as far as possible, such armour is issued not only to all our combat troops but to troops in the theatre of operations. My hon. Friend Mr. Gray rightly praised the role of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. He has experience of serving with the armed forces but, without wishing to be patronising, I must emphasise that the scheme has educated many Members on both sides of the House who lack such experience but can now speak with authority about the role of the armed forces.

The NAO report concluded, as many hon. Members have pointed out and as the Secretary of State has been at pains to reiterate, that Operation Telic was a success overall, not least, as my hon. Friend Mr. Soames said, because of the hard work, dedication and adaptability of the Defence Logistics Organisation, military and civilian personnel, and members of the defence industry, as well as the great flexibility of our armed forces, which was highlighted by a number of hon. Members. However much the Secretary of State leans on that general conclusion—and I suspect that a number of his hon. Friends back him—Opposition Members believe that glaring deficiencies highlighted in the NAO report are repeat offences, and did not arise for the first time in Operation Telic. The Opposition's main purpose in calling this debate is, following the publication of his defence White Paper, to put him on a warning order and ensure that those lessons are implemented. We must not find ourselves debating them again in a year.

The lessons are serious. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State says from a sedentary position that he is thinking of resigning. [Laughter.] [Hon. Members: "You say that."] We may have to wait two or three weeks to find out whether that is true. A number of glaring deficiencies were highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex and others, in particular the shortage of what can best be described as layered defence in terms of nuclear, biological and chemical protection.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

One way of seeing whether the Ministry of Defence was dealing with the problems would be for the Defence Committee in, say, six months to invite the Secretary of State to appear before it to answer specific questions on these matters.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Defence)

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend. I am sure that the Chairman of the Defence Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, will take that into account.

The deficiencies in protection against weapons of mass destruction, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex and others pointed out, drive a coach and horses through the Government's position. Time and again, at the Dispatch Box and in public, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and the Foreign Secretary stressed that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein was the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Most of us were only too conscious, as were the men and women of our armed forces and their families, that at least on the battlefield, they could be faced with that. The National Audit Office report proves beyond all doubt that the kind of effective layered defence that we would have expected to be in place was not in place.

As we in the Opposition have said before, the Government relied on just-in-time logistical support. The operation was short and sharp, against an enemy who, we can see in retrospect, did not amount to much. But in the defence White Paper, the Secretary of State outlined the kind of major operations that our armed forces may have to conduct over a long period against perhaps more formidable enemies. Under those circumstances, it is right and proper for us to make certain that the Secretary of State and Ministers are aware that it will be totally unacceptable if our armed forces are sent into harm's way without nuclear, biological and chemical protection and without the ability to sustain operations over a period longer than a few weeks—otherwise just in time will become just too late.

A key condemnation in the NAO report related to the problems of the logistical chain. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan pointed out, in a semi-humorous way, all the logistical problems that can be expected over hundreds of years. We all know that nothing can ever be perfect. One of the most important conclusions in the report highlighted shortages and an apparent breakdown in the logistical chain of command. It stated:

"This led to shortages, loss of confidence in the supply chain and inefficiency as personnel searched for items they had ordered or ordered duplicates urgently."

Headquarters 1 (UK) Armoured Division

"lost confidence in the ability of the logistics system to supply what they required when it was needed."

Such a loss of confidence is pretty frightening. Ultimately, it probably did not matter, as the campaign lasted only days or weeks. The Secretary of State knows that if his White Paper's strategic vision is correct, it is likely that within the next few months or years, we will put our armed forces into harm's way, where they may face operations for a sustained and lengthy period. Such a collapse of confidence will be hopeless.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex raised a question that the National Audit Office report only touched on—the difficulty in communications. It was bad enough that the satellite link between Headquarters 1 (UK) Armoured Division and the joint headquarters broke down, but at a lower tactical level, many hon. Members will have heard reports from service personnel about problems with radio communications, which are absolutely crucial. I am not saying that the unfortunate incident involving the death of six Royal Military Police personnel could have been avoided, as they were ambushed and elements of the Parachute Regiment were some distance away, but there is no doubt that a breakdown in communications made it extremely difficult for those involved to get the sort of support that they needed. I know that these things happen in war, but unless servicemen can be reassured that their communications are robust and can sustain the sort of incoming fire that they might face in future, the morale of our troops will collapse pretty quickly.

The Opposition believe that the armed forces carried out a magnificent operation while facing a great deal of difficulty. Some of that difficulty related to the nature of the terrain and some to working in a coalition. Of course, some difficulty also lay in the fact that some of the step orders necessary for deployment and logistics took place just in time because of circumstances beyond constraints purely to do with the United Nations. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex highlighted our suspicion that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State were having to speak to more than one audience, and there was undoubtedly concern that they did not wish to worry some elements on their own Back Benches.

The National Audit Office report is a crucial document that highlights some telling failures in the system. The Opposition expect Ministers to implement the lessons, and we will return to them when we discuss the defence White Paper.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence 3:42, 13 January 2004

I thank hon. Members for their contributions. I am pleased that the House has had this opportunity to pay tribute to the exceptional achievements of our armed forces on Operation Telic. Although we are debating an analysis of a past campaign, we should not forget that our servicemen and women continue to serve with distinction today.

Mr. Soames asked about medals in respect of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it is appropriate for me to give the best information I can. On Afghanistan, the Defence Council instruction has been published and the medal is now being issued to eligible service personnel. With regard to Iraq, the draft criteria are currently with the honours and decorations committee, and once they have been agreed, they will be passed to Her Majesty the Queen for final approval. Of course, the House will be notified about the matter in due course.

I hesitate to respond to Mr. Swayne, because at the last Defence questions, in what I saw as a jokey aside—I think that everyone accepted it in that spirit—I said that when members of the armed forces addressed me, they normally called me "Sir". Everyone laughed, but that was not reflected in Hansard. The Mail on Sunday then said that the stroppy Adam Ingram, Minister for the armed forces, had insulted the hon. Gentleman. I only wish that Hansard could have recorded some of the asides. None the less, I wish to set the record straight, as I received a letter about it; I do not know whether it was from a constituent of his, but I shall reply to it to say that I had no intention of being disrespectful. Indeed, I pay sincere tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the role that he played during his service in Iraq, as I do to Dr. Murrison. I am sorry that I missed the hon. Gentleman during my visit to Iraq in September. Although I do not necessarily agree with his speech, I can give him the absolute assurance that when I disappeared into my helicopter in the great cloud of dust that he described, it was not because I knew that he was coming closer and was trying to remove myself from the point of contact. Part of the purpose of visiting our forces on the front line is to hear exactly what is on their minds, and all Ministers try to have an open discussion with those with whom we come into contact. That is an important aspect of learning lessons about anything that we may ask our armed forces to do, no matter where they are.

I welcome the interest that hon. Members have shown in the lessons that are to be drawn from Operation Telic, just as we welcome and applaud the ongoing—and very thorough—inquiry by the Select Committee on Defence that has been taking place over the past eight months or so. We look forward to the publication of its report. It was suggested that the Secretary of State should give evidence to the Committee—of course, he has done so in relation to every important subject, and is held accountable to the House through that mechanism.

It is important to take into account the Department's own in-depth critical analysis in our report, "Operations in Iraq—Lessons for the Future". That is equally significant, although we did not hear much about it today.

It is vital for defence and for the country that we should never fall into the trap of taking successful operations for granted. It is also important for the men and women of our armed forces to know that Parliament cherishes their services to the nation and to the world and cares deeply about their welfare and their ability to maintain the staggeringly high standards that they have set. Nor should we forget the indispensable contribution made by our civilian personnel at all levels. I therefore hope that the House will continue to concern itself closely with these matters.

The shadow Secretary of State is usually fair-minded, but I fear that his concluding comment fell far short of the import and purpose of this debate. It would be wrong to say that it was reflected in a concerted campaign—the Tories are not good at any campaigns at the moment, never mind concerted ones—but Conservative Members went on to make repeated comments about the personal attitude and demeanour of the Secretary of State, almost as if they were trying to attribute to him an attitude that will be reported in tomorrow's papers. Of course, that attitude does not exist. My right hon. Friend made clear in his opening comments, and had to repeat to Mr. Portillo, the basis upon which such reports are examined. On both occasions, he stressed that we seek a robust analysis of all the lessons learned. We are not unusual in that: previous Governments have taken the same approach. Indeed, Mr. Leigh noted that in 1991, under a Conservative Administration, the Public Accounts Committee made trenchant comments about certain shortcomings at that time. It is always an ongoing process. The central charge made by Opposition Members falls far short of reality, and it has failed.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

The Minister says that the Opposition are not good at concerted campaigns. Why, then, have we had to put up speaker after speaker, while only one Government Back Bencher has spoken?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

It is called an Opposition day debate. I spent 10 years in opposition, wishing throughout to be on the other side, either as a member of the Government or on the Back Benches, and I never want to return to the position in which the hon. Gentleman finds himself. I look forward to his continuing in the role of Opposition Back Bencher.

Let me deal with the main propositions and views that the Opposition have presented today. Some are unsurprising because they reflect the lessons that have been captured through the exhaustive and frank review process that the Ministry conducted. However, the motion

"deplores the fact that approximately 200,000 sets of enhanced combat body armour issued since 1989 seem to have disappeared".

Of course, that is factually wrong. The Opposition get their motions as well as the charges against us wrong.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

Okay—I simply point it out to Opposition Members in the hope that they will be more accurate in preparing their attack. They should check their facts more thoroughly.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I apologise for the typing error in our motion but will the Minister now tell the House whether 200,000 sets have disappeared since 1999?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State dealt with that in interventions and his earlier contribution. There is nothing further to add. I could use the same words but there is nothing new to say. If the hon. Gentleman is unhappy with the answer, doubtless he will pursue the matter. As my right hon. Friend said, we will try to get the proper answer. We have not got to the bottom of some of the background, which remains subject to investigation. That will be further considered when the PAC examines the matter.

Let me deal with the criticisms and views that have been expressed. Some have been adduced from highly selective use of a positive, well-constructed and helpful NAO report. However, I regret that a few fell into a category that I can describe only as exhibiting a wilful determination to elude the facts.

Let us consider the report's conclusions. When Sir John Bourn, Comptroller and Auditor General, presented the report on 11 December, he said:

"The scale of the operation and the speed with which it was carried out are both extremely impressive. There were problems but these should be seen in the wider context of the overall success."

The report states:

"Operation TELIC was a significant military success."

That has been acknowledged. It also states:

"The huge logistic effort was successful and fundamental to the success of the operation. There were many examples of success in the way that the logistics challenge was met.

It states:

"Overall, UK equipment performed impressively. The Department's major equipments contributed significantly to overall military capability and the success of the operation, and were also supported effectively."

It also says:

"The high calibre of our armed forces personnel and the quality of their training was again demonstrated. Reservist personnel made a valuable contribution to the overall success of the operation."

It further states:

"The Department has a comprehensive process for identifying and capturing lessons emerging from operations and exercises, and has identified lessons that could reduce the risks associated with future operations."

Those comments are hardly a withering condemnation that would cause Ministers and others involved in decision making to hang their heads in shame. It is thin gruel on which to mount an attack on the competence of Ministers, chiefs of staff or the Secretary of State.

However, that is not say that there were no problems. There were problems, as there have been in every conflict, whether major, medium or small-scale, in recent decades.

When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State intervened, he quoted the following passage:

"That is not to say that there are not deficiencies. There will always be deficiencies; there are always things that the services need to do their job better."—[Hansard, 16 October 1995; Vol. 264, c. 115.]

Who does the House think said that? I can tell hon. Members that it was the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex. That problems exist has been recognised; what we must do is to address the deficiencies identified in the report, as the Opposition motion states. That is precisely what we are doing. If we want to maintain the outstanding capabilities of our armed forces, we must be self-critical and learn from the difficulties as well as from the successes.

The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea asked for an indication from me that the Government would be humble in their response to the report. I think that we are taking a humble approach to the matter.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough said that the Public Accounts Committee, of which he is Chairman, has a role to play in these matters. We look forward to that interrogation, and to the PAC's analysis. We want to ensure that any such study displays objectivity—a word that the hon. Gentleman did not use. The PAC must not be used for party political purposes.

The NAO has acknowledged the work that the MOD already has under way to improve performance still further. Indeed, some changes are already being implemented, such as strengthening the focus on logistic planning at MOD headquarters.

Other lessons have no quick solution, but will form the basis of work in the MOD over the coming months. I head the end-to-end review, which is an important analysis of what is delivered on land and in the air. That intensive interrogation and analysis of our systems is aimed at determining where improvements must be made. However, our examination has led to us receiving representations from hon. Members who want us to turn our gaze away from their areas of the country. They do not want us to examine what we are doing in their constituencies, and they want to prevent us from recommending closures or change of any kind. I hear the slogan "No change!" all the time, yet the Government are subject to constant criticism for failing to address the subject of change.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

The Minister will have seen in last week's edition of The Sunday Telegraph a report about General Fulton's evidence to the Defence Select Committee on the subject of urgent operational requirements. The cost of those requirements comes to about £500 million. The minutes of the meeting have not been published, but the report suggests that much of the equipment will not be retained by our armed forces and that it will be returned. Will the Minister say what he is doing to review the matter of urgent operational requirements, which of course reflects the lack of stocks on the shelves? Is it right that much of that equipment will be sold back at a loss?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. A balance must be struck between the amount of stocks held and the needs of urgent operational requirements. We will never get the balance perfect. That has never been achieved, but we must get as close as possible to the best solution. However, if all the necessary material had been bought in advance and yet the conflict had not taken place as a result of the intensive efforts of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to secure a resolution through the UN and not through conflict, Ministers would have been criticised in the House today for spending tens or hundreds of millions of pounds on equipment that was not needed.

There is a fine line to walk in these matters. As the NAO report suggests, we have to find the approach that offers the best balance. That is what is important, rather than acting in haste in response to the most recent media headline.

That said, I do not recognise the picture that some are trying to paint. The fact is that Operation Telic worked. It was a success. We should be careful not to turn that success into failure.

We must not lose sight of the fact that this was an overwhelming success. The NAO has identified many factors behind the success in achieving our main military objectives so rapidly: our outstanding personnel; the impressive standard of the equipment that we procured; the effectiveness of equipment support; the quality of training for the armed forces; notable successes in logistics; and the speed and flexibility of our operational planning. That must always be taken into account—yes, as we learn the lessons, yes, as we seek answers, and yes, as we implement those progressively.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 202, Noes 330.

Division number 27 Iraq — National Audit Office Report on Operation Telic

Aye: 202 MPs

No: 330 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

Tellers

No: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Absent: 124 MPs

Absent: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House congratulates Her Majesty's Armed Forces on their outstanding contribution to the success of the Coalition campaign in Iraq and welcomes the report of the National Audit Office "Operation TELIC—United Kingdom Military Operations in Iraq", which is consistent with the main conclusions of the Ministry of Defence's own report "Operations in Iraq—Lessons for the Future".