Iran (Detention of Naval Personnel)

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons at 4:16 pm on 19th June 2007.

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Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence 4:16 pm, 19th June 2007

On 16 April I announced that the Chief of the Defence Staff had appointed Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton of the Royal Marines, currently the Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Gibraltar, to lead an inquiry into the operational circumstances surrounding the seizure of 15 of our personnel on 23 March. I also announced an independent review of the media handling of the incident and its aftermath, and subsequently confirmed that it would be led by Mr. Tony Hall, chief executive of the Royal Opera house and formerly the BBC's director of news and current affairs. I am grateful to General Fulton and Tony Hall, who have both completed their respective reports to tight deadlines with all the professionalism and candour that was expected of them. I am now informing the House of their findings, as I undertook to do.

I begin by stressing that the two reports are very different in nature and therefore require different handling. Mr. Hall's review is a public document, which is today placed in the Library of the House and published on the MOD website. As I made clear in April, General Fulton's report is classified, because it addresses operational and tactical issues, which cannot be discussed in public without increasing the risks to our forces. Nevertheless, those events and the issues that they raise are legitimate subjects of parliamentary and public concern. To balance those factors, I decided that I would give a broad outline of General Fulton's findings to the House, but that the full report would be given to the Defence Committee. That has been done; I leave it to the Chairman and members of that Committee to comment today as they see fit.

General Fulton highlights the complex and dynamic nature of the northern Gulf as an operating environment. We are there as part of a coalition maritime force carrying out a variety of demanding tasks against a backdrop of wider and rapidly evolving international issues. His report is impressively thorough. It has looked at every aspect of the incident, and others that may hold valuable lessons. To complete the report, he has carried out lengthy interviews with all the people involved and at every level of the chain of command.

Hon. Members urged that specific matters should be considered, and I would like to tackle some of those points to the extent that I can do that, consistent with the constraints of operational security that I mentioned.

First, General Fulton considered the events on the Shatt al-Arab waterway in June 2004. He concluded that, although there were some broad similarities in the circumstances, the events were different, and that the requisite lessons of the time were learned and applied. Secondly, he considered the rules of engagement and confirmed that they were entirely appropriate for the task and remain so today. Thirdly, his report is clear that the event was not the result of equipment or resource issues, including helicopter availability, the size and suitability of the Cornwall or the size and armament of the boarding party's boats. The coalition force commander in the Gulf has reiterated that he is content with the capabilities deployed by the UK but, as ever, we keep that under review. Finally, General Fulton confirmed that the presence of the BBC on HMS Cornwall was not a factor in any of the operational decisions taken on 23 March.

General Fulton has, however, identified some shortcomings. This was a coalition operation—hon. Members will not need me to spell out the merits of that—but clearly there is a cost in terms of added complexity. Despite that, it is vital that the procedures that we all share can adapt rapidly to change in such a complex strategic environment. General Fulton's report has identified some faults in that respect, and we are addressing them with our coalition partners.

General Fulton has also identified some specific national shortcomings. The central lesson is that we must improve our ability to identify and assess the risks that this complex environment generates, and to train and posture our forces accordingly. He noted the need for improvements in a range of areas: in the handling of intelligence, in communications, in doctrine and in training—both individual and collective.

On training in particular General Fulton notes—and this is worth repeating—that the Royal Navy's generic training for operations remains world class. By the time a Royal Navy ship deploys on operations, it is well prepared for a wide range of potential roles. However, the report does identify a need to improve some training specific to particular tasks, including boarding. Furthermore, it recommends that in future we deploy specialist rather than composite teams for boarding operations—a recommendation that we have already acted on. General Fulton also recommends that we ensure that we learn quickly from the experience of other nations operating in the area and get better at sharing information with them.

Above all, General Fulton's report concludes that the events of 23 March were not the result of a single gross failing or individual human error, but of the coming together of a series of vulnerabilities, many relatively small when viewed in isolation, which together placed our personnel in a position that could be exploited by Iran. His conclusions suggest that there is no case for disciplinary action against any of the individuals involved— [Interruption.]—but his report emphasises that many of those individuals could have done more to prevent what happened. In that respect, it identifies some failings, both collective and individual, which the Royal Navy's chain of command will consider and deal with.

General Fulton recommends a range of actions to address the shortcomings that he has identified. An action plan has been drawn up and a number of measures have already been taken, allowing us to recommence boarding operations in April, and further measures are under way. The Select Committee on Defence has been briefed on the action plan, but as I indicated at the start, there is a limit to how much I can say to the House. I can say that I, together with the chiefs of staff, are content that General Fulton's report and the resulting action plan will ensure that our people are properly prepared for future operations.

I turn to the Hall review, and let me say at the outset that we accept all of its recommendations. In my statement to the House on 16 April, I made it clear that the intention of the review was not to embark on a witch hunt focused on apportioning blame for the decision to allow media payments to the returning detainees. Like the Fulton report, the Hall review confirms that it would be wrong and counter-productive to focus on finding individuals to blame for these events. What was needed was a calm and dispassionate assessment of what happened in order to learn the lessons and to improve the ability of the MOD and the services to handle similar events in future.

Tony Hall makes it plain that on the question of whether payment should have been made for individual stories, there was a

"collective failure of judgement or an abstention of judgement" within the department allowing that to happen. In my earlier statement to Parliament, I accepted that failing as my responsibility and apologised to the House.

I welcome the report's clear recommendation that media payments to serving military or civilian personnel for talking about their work should simply not be allowed. That confirms my announcement on 9 April of an interim ban on acceptance of media payments. Work is now under way to make detailed amendments to service and MOD regulations and guidance to reflect that conclusion. The report further identifies that work is needed to establish a clearer policy on the naming of individuals and their families in such cases. That work, too, is already under way.

The report also identifies some broader themes. Perhaps most crucial is the huge change over the past 25 years in the context in which media coverage of operations takes place. Media access has increased significantly and the agenda has changed. The focus on the individual, for example, inevitably clashes with the service ethos of group first, and the desire to present instantaneous news from the heart of the action can conflict with the need for operational security. That means that, although it is clearly in the interests of the MOD and the media to co-operate, tensions exist. We need to manage those tensions better, and we need to rebuild confidence between the MOD and the media. The report also makes it clear that we need to help the media to develop a better understanding of defence issues so that they can be set in context.

The report recommends that, for the future, the lead for the media handling of such episodes should lie clearly with the MOD, rather than with a front-line command or a single service. It also recommends some strengthening of what the report notes is a relatively small central press office. The report also makes clear a number of recommendations on the need for clearer decision-making processes. I accept those entirely. Unequivocal understanding of who should sanction what is essential. The recent capability review, published in March, also highlights that, and in response we have already been looking at how we can clarify responsibilities and improve accountability within the Department.

I hope that it is clear that we have sought, wherever possible, to learn the lessons from this difficult episode, both operationally and in terms of media handling, and to be open and accountable in so doing. We have had two reviews: one independently led, and today put into the public domain; the second, of necessity, classified, but shared with the Defence Committee to ensure proper parliamentary accountability. Both are very thorough and professional. Both offer clear, detailed recommendations, all of which we accept, and many of which are already well in hand. Both are focused on the future, determined to help ensure that we do not make these mistakes again. The Chief of the Defence Staff and my permanent secretary will take the lead in implementing the recommendations. I expect the great majority to be implemented by the end of this year, and many of them sooner than that.

I will end by saying that I know that we have the best armed forces in the world. They are respected everywhere for their bravery, their professionalism and their ability to get results. Some have argued that this incident has dented their hard-won reputation, but I do not believe that to be true. Their reputation is more durable than that. These reports will help us to maintain and enhance that reputation, and I intend to ensure that we succeed.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement. He will be aware that I returned from the Falklands with the Minister of State, Mr. Ingram, at lunchtime, and that I have therefore been unable to see a copy of the report or to have a full briefing on it. I am grateful to the Minister of State, however, for his oral briefing in the middle of last night somewhere over the Atlantic. If I stray into operational elements covered in the report, I hope that the Secretary of State will understand that that is utterly unintentional.

The seizure of our naval personnel caused great anger across the country, not least because of their subsequent treatment at the hands of the Iranians. We are not seeking to name scapegoats today, however; that would be in no one's interests, least of all those of our forces on deployment. However, the House must know that Ministers have asked all the relevant questions and that all remedies have been undertaken to minimise the risk of such an event happening again. It is also important to avoid giving the impression that no one is to blame for what was a national embarrassment. I am sure that the Select Committee will want to consider the report in great detail in the months ahead. Over the past few days, I have had the chance to speak to a large number of Royal Navy personnel, many of whose views concurred closely with those expressed in the Fulton report.

I would like to raise a number of specific issues with the Secretary of State. It is clear that the frequency of successful and unresisted boardings produced a diminished sense of danger, so that the equipment used on the occasion that we are discussing was deemed suitable. Is he satisfied that, in an increased state of alert, we have sufficient alternative and additional equipment available? Is he convinced that the helicopter cover is now sufficient, both in platform numbers and hours allocated, for the task of boarding? On intelligence, is he satisfied that information from UK and other sources is sufficient to warn of an increased risk of attack, above and beyond a necessarily high base line, given the approach and activities of the Revolutionary Guard? He also mentioned training. Will he tell the House more about where in naval training the failures have occurred? We are pleased that, in future, specialist teams will be used for boarding. It is, after all, dangerous work, not work experience.

There is an issue that I think the whole House needs to discuss, that of embedded media. Can the Secretary of State tell us, as a matter of fact, whether the BBC crew was still on board HMS Cornwall when the seizure took place? The authors of the report clearly do not believe that the presence or otherwise of BBC personnel was a factor in our operational decisions, but what about the other side? What about the Iranians? Does not the presence of live television crews in a place where we know the Iranians are constantly considering attacks provide a potential incentive for them in the knowledge that they have a ready media audience in attendance? Does that not deserve far more attention in the future?

The whole report is scathing about the Government's approach to media handling. The Ministry of Defence did not take control, therefore the media set the agenda. It would have been sensible to involve the Press Complaints Commission, but the Government refused the offer. There was a collective failure of judgment. Many people could have said no to the sale of individual stories, but no one did so. Ultimately, that is the Secretary of State's job.

One final issue needs to be raised—Labour's handling of MOD press since 1997. There are 229 people in the Government's communications department at the MOD. This Government abolished uniformed single-service press officers in their attempt to control and politicise MOD press, and it is clear that they could not even do that competently. The Conservatives believe that the abolition of uniformed single-service press officers was a mistake, and an incoming Conservative Government will reverse it.

As I have said, I believe that the Government's handling of the whole crisis, especially the media aspect, made a national embarrassment incomparably worse. The Secretary of State has already apologised to the House for his role in the media handling, and naturally the House accepts that; but the whole House will expect it not to be repeated. Our forces are the best in the world, and they certainly deserve better.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I think that I can deal with all the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. I do not think that any of them transgressed the border between what we can discuss in the House and what cannot be discussed for reasons of operational security.

Let me say at the outset that mistakes were made—of that there is no doubt—and I have accepted full responsibility. There are matters that must be put right, which is why I was determined that we would conduct the two reviews whose results I have announced today. I asked for the faults to be exposed and for recommendations to be made on how they could be corrected, and I believe that both General Fulton and Tony Hall have done that for us. I intend to see this through, and will see through the operational side with the supervision of the Select Committee.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of resources. That was addressed in the report. As I said in my statement, the report makes it clear that the incident did not result from equipment or resource issues. Indeed, the coalition maritime commander has explicitly said he is content that he has the resources required for the tasks that he is given; but, as ever, we keep resources under review. I have said many times that we will always seek to give commanders the resources they need for the job that we ask of them, and we will keep those resources under consideration as part of our continuing review.

There has been a great deal of speculation about helicopters, but the bottom line is that if the helicopter had been asked to stay at the scene, it could have done so. There is sufficient helicopter support for these operations. That issue, however, comes within the broader continuing review of resources.

Was there an intelligence failure? General Fulton's inquiry centred on exactly that sort of question. Clearly, any failings in this regard would be operationally sensitive, but I can tell the House that there were shortcomings, which will be addressed through a plan overseen by the chiefs of staff. The Select Committee has been briefed in detail, and I do not intend to go into any further details.

The generic training given to the Navy through FOST—flag officer sea training—was considered to be world class against the test of the review, but a shortcoming was identified in relation to the need to train for specific tasks, particularly boarding. That is exactly what has been addressed, as well as the issue of there being specifically nominated boarding parties instead of the way in which they were previously put together.

The BBC was present on HMS Cornwall at the time. General Fulton's reputation goes before him, and I am sure that all who know him know that he has done a thorough and professional job. He has come to the view that the BBC's presence had no operational effect.

I shall now turn to the Hall report and the media—

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman asks about intelligence; I have already addressed that issue. There were shortcomings in respect of intelligence, which have been dealt with, but I shall not go into the detail of them in public for obvious reasons.

I realise that my reply is lengthy, but a series of questions were asked to which I should respond. At the heart of the Hall report is the judgment that the MOD, as opposed to the single service, should have taken responsibility for the media and for the media handling of the captives when they were returned. I accept that recommendation and that analysis. However, although that judgment is correct, it does have the benefit of hindsight. It was the view of those planning to receive the released captives that they should be received back into a military environment. The same analysis informs a lot of calls for us to receive injured servicemen back into a military environment, in order to enable them to recover from the trauma that they have been through. The view was taken, which I agreed with at the time, that it was right to bring these people back into a service environment. However, as the Hall report makes clear, there was at the time a media storm, and the level of media demand outstripped the ability of that environment to cope. I accept that, and I also accept that we need to make sure that that never happens again.

An offer from the PCC came on the day of the captives' release. The Hall report recommends that there should be engagement with the PCC in developing the ability of our media shielders to support people through the early stages of such a process. I also accept that recommendation. It is entirely different from what was offered to the MOD, and which it did not respond to. The Hall report does not conclude that single-service press officers should be reinstated, but it does say that there should be more engagement of a higher level of military personnel in the MOD press centre and the communications operation. We will act on that recommendation.

Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement and for his briefing to colleagues last night. We should also be grateful to Tony Hall for giving us this report on the media handling. However, I still hold the view that I have held throughout: the media handling is something of a red herring.

The Secretary of State has taken responsibility, which is right because permission for the revelations could only have been given by him or in his name. I simply seek a reassurance from him that among the lessons that are learned will not be a temptation to gag military officers from talking to the press in the course of their ordinary duties. Some of them have intimated to me that they occasionally feel that that is the case.

The Secretary of State has told us that the Fulton inquiry was thorough; I have no reason to doubt that, and I entirely understand why it cannot be published. However, there are a number of unanswered questions. We gather from the statement that there was not a problem to do with equipment or lack of helicopters, that there was not a major intelligence failure and that there was not any particular serious error anywhere in the line of command. In that case, what exactly did go wrong? Did the Royal Navy simply fail to comprehend the level of threat that the Iranians posed? If so, that was in stark contrast to our land forces in Basra and on the border, who understood only too well what the threat was—and, indeed, that has been discussed many times in this House.

The Secretary of State says that lessons must be learned quickly from the experiences of our partners. Do the other nations involved in this work use constant air cover? It remains to me unfathomable that these dangerous operations could be taking place in contested waterways without a greater degree of air cover than seemed to be available within the coalition at the time.

This report seems to conclude that everyone was to blame a bit but no one was to blame a lot. Mercifully, this turned out in the end only to be a national embarrassment; it could have been a complete disaster. Who exactly will step up to the plate and accept responsibility for what happened?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I will step up to that plate, and have done. I take responsibility for what happened—that is my job and my responsibility. I do not think that we will serve any purpose by seeking to identify other individuals to blame, when a perfectly professional report, carried out by a man of integrity, has said that this set of circumstances came about because of a combination of factors.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the situation could have been much worse, but the fact is that it did not develop into something much worse. There is some credit to be given to those who secured the return of these 15 young people much more quickly than many informed commentators said could be done, in a situation in which the Iranians did not get the public apology that they so craved for their own propaganda purposes, and in which their own behaviour and illegal activities, exposed across the region, diminished their standing in the region among those countries whom they most tried to impress by these actions.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions that I will seek to answer quickly. It is not our intention to gag the armed forces; however, they are in a difficult position. We need to find a balance between openness and risk to security. The overriding ethos of the services is the putting of the interests of the whole above those of the individual. Every single individual in the services who seeks to engage with the media takes on that challenge, which is why there is a clear and unequivocal rule that if a member of the services wishes to engage with the media, he or she requires permission so to do. Some are barred by contract from so doing, as the report reveals. This is all very sensible, but a significant degree of communication goes on between members of the armed services, the media and the public. We are not going to move back from that openness, but we will have to manage it against the various challenges, particularly those to security.

On air cover, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman details on the operating procedures of every country that operates in the Gulf, but I can tell him that they do not always board with air cover. It largely depends on where they are in the operational area, and I am not going to go into the details of that.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. Because of timetabled business that will follow, may I please ask that Back Benchers now ask just a single question? A brief response from the Secretary of State might ensure that more Members are called.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton

I thank my right hon. Friend for setting out the report before us today. As a member of the Defence Select Committee, I concur with the view that it is a thorough and professional report, to which is attached an action plan. Can he tell the House whether and how he will report on the fulfilling of the important milestones attached to that report?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I thank my hon. Friend, who is in a privileged position in the House in having had access to the Fulton report, and the other members of her Committee for taking on the responsibility of being the arm of parliamentary accountability in this unique process—unique, at least, in my experience. Exactly how we will proceed from where we are to the point of completion, at which we can draw a line underneath this issue, will be a matter for discussion between me, as the Secretary of State, and her Select Committee. However, I fully expect that the Committee will continue to play a role in ensuring that we see through the action plan that we have shared with it.

Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Chair, Defence Committee

I am particularly grateful to the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of the statement, and the Defence Committee is grateful to him for showing us in confidence the full report by General Fulton. We will need to consider that report and the Secretary of State's statement today very carefully indeed. If we are to be able to assure the House that the lessons learned from this incident have been fully implemented, it places a great responsibility on us and on the Government. Will the Secretary of State, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence and of the Government, pledge to work with us and to give us—in confidence if need be—all the material that, in our judgment, we shall need in order to be able to give the House that assurance?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and to his Committee for taking on that onerous task, and I recognise that there will need to be a continuing relationship. He and his Committee know that where I can share information with the Committee across the range of my responsibilities, I have done so. They have always respected the confidence that the Department and I have placed in them and I welcome that relationship. I will have to consider the very specific question that the right hon. Gentleman has asked me, just as he will have to consider the terms of my statement and the report before deciding further. However, he may rest assured that that would be my aim, and if it is possible for me to do that while at the same time preserving the security of those on operations, I will see it through.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Labour, Islwyn

I have no doubt that the media handling of this matter was a failure and an embarrassment, but it is of secondary importance to the operational effectiveness of our forces and the security of our serving men and women in the Gulf. I welcome my right hon. Friend's decision to share the Fulton report with the Defence Committee. There has been much speculation that there were two areas of failure, with first, the lack of appreciation of the threat that the Iranians posed and, secondly, a failure of communications. My right hon. Friend alluded to both in his statement. Can he assure the House that the lessons learned from this will be part of the training regime for all those who are now to be deployed in the Gulf?

B

Don Touhig may have no doubts about the media handling
of this matter (the behavour of the fifteen sailors captured by Iran), but the salient point is that the MOD failed to pin point where the blame ley, and so the MOD report was indeed the usual government whitewash, and not as Don Touhig claims the media's fault, so dear to the heart of almost every politician.
Bruce Shaxson.

Submitted by Bruce Shaxson

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I can give my right hon. Friend an unequivocal assurance on that point, and I thank him for his support.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers Conservative, Gosport

Is the Secretary of State aware that the armed forces personnel clearly needed training and instruction that they did not have, and that the rules of engagement were clearly wrong? Is he aware that this feeble and evasive statement cannot be the end of the matter? I, for one, as a former Chairman of the Committee that considered what became the Armed Forces Act 2006 and a member of the Defence Committee, prefer not to be excluded from consideration of this issue and intend to find ways to pursue the matter elsewhere.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I of course respect the hon. Gentleman's position as a Member of this House. In handling this report in this way, I sought to square the issue of confidentiality and the secrecy that was necessary to protect operational security with parliamentary accountability, but I recognise that I do not have the last word in relation to that. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about training, but I fundamentally disagree with him about the rules of engagement. The Fulton report contains no criticism of the rules of engagement, nor does it suggest that they were inappropriate for the operation that was being carried out. In fact, it says the contrary.

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Special Envoy to PM on Human Rights in Iraq

I believe that it is important to remind people that nobody died and that 15 young people came back alive. The Secretary of State has acknowledged, as he has on previous occasions, that there were mistakes and shortcomings. Surely what we need now is to draw a line under this and to implement the recommendations. Can my right hon. Friend refute the suggestion, made by an Opposition Member from a sedentary position, that we have a Mickey Mouse navy? We have nothing of the sort and that view is not shared on this side of the House.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I have no hesitation in accepting my right hon. Friend's invitation to confirm the view—which almost every hon. Member and many across the world share—that the Royal Navy rightly enjoys a world class reputation. No matter how much damage anybody thinks that this one incident has done, I do not think they believe that it has changed that reputation.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

The Secretary of State must agree that this incident was a very serious operational failure indeed. If the captain of one of Her Majesty's ships were to run it aground on a sand bank, he would be arraigned before a court martial. It seems astonishing to me that the right hon. Gentleman can come to the House with a report by General Fulton—which clearly has been staffed to death by the Royal Navy—and say that the affair is over and that we should draw a line under it. Does he accept that that shows a woeful and shameful lack of leadership and grip on his part and on the part of his Department? Will he tell the CDS that he has better things to do than take part in ill judged public relations stunts that involved welcoming back from the disaster a crew who should have spent two days at home and then been sent straight back to their ships?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman's words will be heard by the CDS and others, and no doubt either that his plan is that they should be. I have complete faith in General Fulton's integrity—

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, it did not sound like it. I have complete faith in General Fulton's integrity. He prepared and owns the report, and no one else sought to influence or shape it. It comes to the honest conclusion that a combination of factors led to the unfortunate and terrible circumstances of an event that I accept ought to have been avoided. We should look forward to make sure that it never happens again, but the House must accept that, for decades and generations, we have been asking young people to do very dangerous things in very dangerous and difficult circumstances, and that sometimes things go wrong.

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck PPS (Rt Hon Geoff Hoon, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

The families of the hostages from Plymouth were very appreciative of the welfare and emotional support that they received during the crisis, but there was a view that the people offering that support did not have the necessary media training. If a similar event were to happen, will my right hon. Friend ensure that family members and others are shielded from the media by people who understand the media? My constituents are also grateful for the offer from the PCC.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

We will consider the PCC training recommendation with a view to acting on it, but I know from the reports about the families that have come back to me how grateful they were for the support that they received during the crisis. When their family members were returned, many said unequivocally that they had been well supported by the generic help that the MOD had been able to offer in facilitating help from the services. The report reveals that, when it came to helping the families, we sought to have in place an officer representing the service and a person acting as a media shield. It may be that both should operate in the same chain of command, and be given support with their media skills. That seems to be the recommendation made by Hall, and I intend to see it through.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green

When I used to serve, a long time ago, the operational chain of command was always clear. I hope that it is still clear now, as it meant that people in command took responsibility when something went wrong. With respect to the Secretary of State, I maintain that we cannot move on until the people who made the mistakes in this instance are seen to take responsibility for them. I urge the right hon. Gentleman not to pretend that he can defend them. The people in the operational chain of command know what they were up against. If they have failed, they should take the responsibility for doing so.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

Those in the operational chain of command know their responsibilities, but I am sure that they will take on board the rehearsal of those responsibilities by the right hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

My right hon. Friend has made a calm, dignified and comprehensive statement to the House. Rightly, it was apologetic in parts, and I think that all reasonable people will thank him for that. However, when the smoke has cleared and we have moved on from issues to do with matelots and iPods, some questions will remain. Is my right hon. Friend entirely convinced in his own mind that the information that we had at the time about the map co-ordinates was correct, and that the Coventry's landing craft were not operating in Iranian waters?

Hon. Members:

It was HMS Cornwall.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

Cornwall—I beg the House's pardon.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I thank my hon. Friend for his support. There is no doubt that HMS Cornwall was operating in Iraqi waters and that the incident itself took place in Iraqi waters. Indeed, people will recollect that in the early days the Iranians provided us with a set of co-ordinates, and asserted that was where the event took place, but when we told them the co-ordinates were in Iraqi waters they changed that set and found one in their own waters. I do not think that even they sustain the position that the incident took place anywhere other than in Iraqi waters.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health)

The Secretary of State rightly pointed out that the Navy is renowned for generic training and multi-skilling, which, of course, underpins the lean manning of warships. Does he accept that the headlong rush towards lean manning of warships is in part responsible for the lack of specialist skills that General Fulton identified?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not accept that. Boarding parties have always been made up of people with other specialist skills, specifically trained for that job. If there is a failure of training, it was in the specific training of nominated people for boarding, who would in any event have had other specialist skills. I know of no Navy in the world that carries boarding parties who are specialists only in that; I do not think they exist.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson PPS (Dr Kim Howells, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I commend my right hon. Friend for the "buck stops here" attitude he has shown. Will he assure me that the witch hunt sought by some Members will not happen and that our servicemen and women will be supported not only by him but by the MOD in ensuring that their jobs are safe and that they can get on with the job they are being paid for—putting their lives on the line for their country, as they do? They should be commended for everything they do.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Because the CDS instructed the report from General Fulton in operational terms, I did not seek to put any qualification on that. In relation to the media-handling side, I was adamant to the House that I was not instructing a review that was intended to be a witch hunt. It was intended to identify what happened, the lessons that needed to be learned and how we could move forward, which is exactly what I intend to do. It is a coincidence that the Fulton report comes to a similar conclusion in that regard, but General Fulton supports the conclusion in his report with an analysis of the facts.

Photo of Anne Snelgrove Anne Snelgrove PPS (Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State), Department of Health

I welcome the fact that there was no equipment failure, the commitment to learning from mistakes and my right hon. Friend's assertion that the rules of engagement were right for the task. I spent several years in the nuclear industry, in a communications department, where I witnessed press officers working in difficult circumstances. The best press officers have media experience and a media background, as I hope my right hon. Friend will agree, so will he assure me that he will consider people with a press background when looking for media support in the future?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I welcome my hon. Friend's advice but, with respect, I do not think it would be appropriate for me to give her that assurance from the Dispatch Box, or we may end up before an industrial tribunal in future in relation to applicants for other jobs.

There are different ways of getting experience in dealing with the media. Given the society we live in, people who never thought the media would intrude in their way of life find increasingly that they need the skills to deal with the media. As I understand it, in relation to augmenting the press part of our Department, the principal lesson from the Hall report suggests that we need people with a degree of service experience and I intend to act on that.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Shadow Minister, Defence

Does the Secretary of State believe that the report has implications and lessons for our coalition partners, and will he ensure that they are fully briefed with the details of the report?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

One of the interesting aspects of the operational report—the Fulton report—is its recognition that it is important always to bear in mind the fact that we are operating as part of a coalition. It is our intention to share the lessons with our coalition partners and, indeed, we have already taken steps to do so at CDS level.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

The poor training and discipline of the boarding party have been admitted—this work is to be undertaken in future by expert teams—but by stepping up to the line, the Secretary of State has done no service to the Navy. It is frankly unbelievable that he has not told the House who was responsible for that poor training, what rank they held and whether they are serving at home or abroad. Will he now give us that information?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I know that the hon. Lady is an assiduous student of issues in relation to defence, and particularly the security of our operations and the safety of our armed forces. I commend her for the work that she does in that regard, but she may well have misunderstood the information that I have given the House.

On training, the recommendation is that we continue to do the world-class generic training that we do for the crew of ships as we deploy them, on the basis that ships are deployed for nine months, that they are quite often diverted to do quite diverse things when they are on deployment, and that the generic training has served us well for a long period. However, that ought to be augmented by some specific training, particularly in relation to boarding, if that is likely to be part of the function of a ship when it is deployed. There is no question of chasing responsibility for someone not having done that in the past.

I do not accept that there was a failure of discipline. I am not going to sit here on these green Benches or stand here at this Dispatch Box and judge these young people on their behaviour in circumstances that I have not experienced. The last time I came to the Dispatch Box, I said that experts in interrogation assured me that their behaviour was well within the bounds of what was permissible and acceptable in relation to their responsibilities. I can do no more than repeat that to the House.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

Will the Secretary of State take it from me that those of us on the Defence Committee will not be party to a whitewash, that we have heard the anger in the House, and that we are aware of the mockery to which the Royal Navy has been subjected by sea shanties being updated? Will he undertake to ensure that there will be no attempt by the MOD to prevent senior serving officers from appearing before our Committee?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be no attempt by my Department to prevent the Select Committee from carrying out the task which they have agreed to accept, and to a degree which I have charged them with.