'collective failure of judgment or an abstention of judgment', within the department. In my earlier Statement to Parliament I accepted this 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. This confirms my announcement on
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I also thank him for organising, with the assistance of the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, an extensive briefing by General Fulton, with the CDS and the Permanent Secretary in attendance, for a small group from the House of Lords Defence Group. We were impressed by the thoroughness of the general's inquiry and the robust and encouraging way that the CDS handled our questions. There is no doubt that lessons have been learnt. Will the Minister confirm that the recommendations of the Fulton report will be implemented and properly funded? How will he keep the House informed of the progress of the implementation and the funding of the recommendations?
We should not lose sight of the fact that 14 young men and one woman were put in a perilous situation. Their capture was hugely embarrassing for the Royal Navy, the Government and the whole country, and could have become a fatal and complex hostage situation. Unfortunately, the Government made a bad situation much worse by granting permission for service personnel to sell their stories to the tabloids. That reduced the Royal Navy to a laughing stock; and the subsequent rescinding of that decision made the Navy look even more ridiculous.
We must not allow the Royal Navy to take all the blame for the two issues under consideration in the Statement. We should not forget the excellence of the Royal Navy. As the Statement makes clear, its training is world-class. Many young women and men come from overseas to benefit from that training.
I have some questions, because we must ensure that such an incident can never happen again. I fully understand that operational security must be of prime concern in the way that the issue is handled. HMS "Cornwall" was part of the Op TELIC command chain reporting to PJHQ, not to C in C Fleet. This was not just a naval issue. Should that arrangement now be changed, given that Op TELIC is more land-focused than concerned with maritime matters?
The Royal Navy operates within a multinational context in the Gulf; our coalition partners will be essential to the successful implementation of the report's recommendations. Can the Minister confirm what steps within the coalition the Ministry of Defence will take to address the report? Is the Iraqi Navy now carrying out its own board and search operations in its waters? We have been training it for several years.
Why did HMS "Cornwall" not have the second Lynx for which it was set up? Was this the result of too few helicopters chasing too many commitments? Helicopters on ships are used for a whole series of different tasks. The priority must always be for operational tasks. Is there some merit in the MoD considering a second helicopter just for administration tasks?
The Hall report makes clear that the media fiasco should never have occurred in the first place—not least because the MoD received a warning of a possible media circus from the Press Complaints Commission and an offer of assistance from that body. Poor media handling of any crisis must not be allowed to happen ever again. What on earth could the Secretary of State have been thinking when he approved the sale of those stories? What effect could he have expected it to have on the parents of service men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan? What effect could he have expected it to have on service personnel recovering from serious injuries in hospital?
The Statement recommends strengthening the relatively small press office. Will the Government consider reinstating the single-service press officers? If a uniformed press officer had been in place, this sorry saga might have been prevented.
Finally, under normal circumstances, the noble Lord, Lord Garden, would be in his place to respond to the Statement. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, to pass on our best wishes to the noble Lord, Lord Garden, and hope that we will see him back in his place very soon.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Astor, for his final remarks. I know that he does not mean that he wants to see the back of me—at least, I hope not—but we will pass on the good wishes of the noble Lord and, I think, of many Members of this House. My noble friend Lord Garden is a very special person who adds a great deal to the operation of this House by his knowledge and personality. I will make a special point of ensuring that he is aware of the feeling expressed in the Chamber today.
I agree with just about every point that the noble Lord, Lord Astor, made on the issue. I should like to say how valuable the briefing given by General Fulton was. The Minister will understand if, in attempting to address the Statement, I inadvertently stray into operational and tactical areas, in which I know that he will be restricted in his replies. I will understand if he says that he cannot answer that question because I have been unable to keep on the straight and narrow.
Nevertheless, the Statement gives rise to a number of questions, particularly about the risk assessment and training aspects of our operations. Were the Government aware of the information gained by the Foreign Affairs Committee in another place through evidence taken in Iran not so long ago, which showed quite clearly that smuggling is a major part of commercial activity and the black economy in Iran and is largely outside the control of the military and the organs of law enforcement? Can the Minister confirm that the risk assessment of the operations is that the Iranian navy's links with organised crime, which we understand has discreet support at the highest level of the Iranian political establishment, has implications for the way in which we operate in that area, bearing in mind that the Royal Navy has, among other things, an anti-smuggling role that would bite very severely into the organised crime that operates within the Iranian system?
On the question of Royal Navy personnel and the media, can the Minister tell us whether the new regulations banning the media from making payments to service personnel also cover attempts to make discreet payments to family members? If so, how is it envisaged that they will do so? This could be a major stumbling block, as we saw when the issue first arose. Can the Minister also say whether, as part of the training review, any assessments have been made of the need for front-line service personnel to receive training for their contacts with the media? It is all very well having a press office back in London to deal expertly with these issues, but if there are embedded media on the front-line, personnel will be exposed to all manner of issues when they deal with those contacts.
Finally, can the Minister say what effect the deployment of specialist rather than composite teams has had on boarding operations? What effect has it had on personnel levels, manning levels and the demands on personnel generally? Has it put pressure on the ability to man the ships? Has it put pressure on the personnel establishment, or has it been encompassed readily within the existing manning arrangements?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords opposite for their comments on the briefing that we gave yesterday. As noble Lords have said, this set a precedent for this House, which reflects the deep expertise in defence in this House, which the Ministry of Defence completely recognises. I join noble Lords in sending the noble Lord, Lord Garden, my best wishes for a speedy recovery. I very much look forward to seeing him back in this House.
Noble Lords will recognise that what I can say about the operational aspects is limited to what was said in the Statement on the Fulton report, but I will endeavour to go as far as I can. As I have said, we take parliamentary scrutiny extremely seriously, and we intend to learn all the lessons that we can from this incident. The noble Lord, Lord Astor, asked about the funding for what the recommendations propose and how we will keep the House informed. We will ensure that what the recommendations propose is fully funded. Last night, we discussed the possibility of the House of Lords Defence Group, which has met to review this, to meet again to review at some appropriate point towards the end of the year the progress that has been made towards implementing the recommendations. We in the Ministry of Defence welcome such scrutiny.
On the steps that we are taking with our coalition partners, one of the key points made by the Fulton report is the need to improve the way in which we learn from the experiences of other coalition partners in a complex and rapidly changing operational and tactical environment. We will share the Fulton report with our coalition partners, and we are working to improve the processes by which we ensure that such lessons are shared more effectively among coalition partners when operating in these circumstances.
The noble Lord asked me what exactly the Iraqis are doing in relation to security in the Gulf area. The Iraqi marines, who operate as part of the Iraqi Navy, already carry out some vessel boardings under training and mentoring from the Royal Navy, and carry out security checks. Alongside our overall strategy in Iraq, we anticipate developing the Iraqi security forces, in time, to hand over responsibility as their capability improves both in terms of equipment and know-how.
Fulton makes absolutely clear that issues of equipment were not material to this incident, whether related to the ship or the helicopters. In terms of why not two helicopters, it is correct that HMS "Cornwall" has the capacity to take on board two helicopters. However, the operating procedures for these boarding operations did not require a helicopter to be on guard throughout. The noble Lord made a point about the availability of a helicopter specifically tasked to do administration roles as the commanding officer was embedded on HMS "Cornwall". We will look at that. As Fulton has shown, we do not believe that helicopter assets were material to this incident.
On the reinstatement of a single-service press officer, a key recommendation from the Hall review is the need for us to strengthen and to develop the Ministry of Defence press office. We accept that recommendation and we will do that. It is important to recognise that approximately half the personnel in the Director General and Media Communications are military personnel. We do not believe that reinstating the single-service press officers in the way in which they operated in the past is the answer. We believe that improving access to military expertise is key, but Hall makes a clear point that this needs to be done not as part of the frontline command but as part of the central MoD, which is how we will implement this.
The noble Lord asked whether we are aware of the evidence relating to smuggling. The coalition forces are operating under a United Nations Security Council resolution specifically addressing smuggling and links to organised crime in the northern Gulf. This is part of the context in which our forces are operating. So, yes, we are aware. As Fulton has said, we need to look at how we manage communications in response to a dynamically changing environment.
As we have said, our clear policy now is that it is not acceptable for serving personnel to receive payments. The noble Lord makes a good point on the complexity of this issue relating to family members of serving personnel. There are also complexities relating to, for example, serving personnel writing memoirs. These are complex areas, which is why we are now implementing a process of setting out regulations to cover all the complicated aspects raised by this policy. It stems from a central policy decision that serving personnel may not receive payments for selling stories.
As regards the training review and contacts with the media, for many years we have had media embedded with our personnel operations and our personnel do receive, and have received, training on how to interact with embedded media. However, there is a need to review our training overall for personnel, and media training is one aspect of that. We are undertaking an overall review of operationally specific training for personnel.
Our policy for the demands on personnel was to make up boarding parties from personnel from the ship's company and not to have specialist boarding personnel. We now are changing that policy and will have specialist boarding teams. We do not think that there will be a problem in terms of personnel to do that. We believe that we can manage it in the way in which we train our personnel. We will do that and therefore will plan for it.
My Lords, I have repeatedly asked, in many ways, whether there was adequate ministerial cover during the important period after the release of the sailors—which has been referred to as the "fiasco period"—and I am always referred back to the terms of reference of the inquiries. Of course they do not cover it—unless "learning lessons" is sufficiently all-embracing. Will the Minister now tell the House whether there was a gap in ministerial cover and the availability of a Minister to be consulted by his staff at that time? Was there a duty Minister, or is what has been referred to in the Statement as the "abstention of judgment" the nearest we can get to an admission that no one was on duty?
My Lords, I can answer directly my noble and learned friend's question. "Was there adequate ministerial cover?" Yes, there was. "Was there a gap?" No, there was not. "Was there a Minister on duty?" Yes, there was.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I welcome the decision not to allow payments to serving personnel. For the avoidance of doubt, can the Minister make it clear that "payments" includes benefits in kind or any other form of kickback?
The Tony Hall report states:
"The relationship between MoD/Armed Forces and the media has, as a result of this and earlier incidents, suffered".
The Minister said that the Government accept the recommendation that the overall relationship between the MoD and the media should be looked at afresh.
Elsewhere in the report, Tony Hall states:
"Many of those we have spoken to have advocated the restoration of single Service one star officers within the MoD's central media and communications structure".
That is a very important point. I was rather aghast to hear the Minister suggest that one-star single-service officers should not form part of the result of that review. Many people with great experience in this field think that it is time we had much better single-service expertise, not only in public relations but also in news management.
My Lords, I can confirm to the noble and gallant Lord that the policy will be that serving personnel cannot receive payments, whether they be benefits in kind or "kickbacks", as he describes it. We need a clear definition of the term to ensure that it encompasses such matters.
The noble and gallant Lord highlights the Hall review's conclusion that the relationship has suffered between the Ministry of Defence and the media. We recognise that and that much has to be done on both sides to improve the relationship in the context of the modern world and the nature of the operations that we have to undertake.
I note the point the noble and gallant Lord made about single-service one-star officers, but the conclusion of Tony Hall was that emphasising the front-line commands, the single services, rather than the central MoD press office was not the way to go or to best handle the modern media. It is vital that we have full military input on handling the media but, as regards having those people as part of the single services, the recommendation of the Hall review is that these personnel should be part of the central MoD press office, working with the civil servants and making sure that their military expertise is properly embedded within the central MoD press office.
My Lords, can the noble Lord explain why he says that the reputation of the Royal Navy has not suffered? That is universally disagreed with outside. Is he not aware that Admiral Cunningham, after the Battle of Crete, said that the Royal Navy's reputation had been built up over 300 years and could be lost in an afternoon? How can he agree that the Royal Navy's reputation has not suffered when the Chief of the Defence Staff goes to meet the crew of a surrendered Royal Navy vessel and says that he is proud of them? How can the Royal Navy's reputation not have suffered when a sailor is blubbing over the fact that he has not got his i-Pod? How does that contrast with the performance of Midshipman Jack Cornwall on the "Iron Duke" at the Battle of Jutland, who saw that the turret was afire and ordered it to be flooded at the cost of his own life to save his ship? Those who love the Navy, who like the Navy, who think that it has been the foundation of our liberties, find it deeply offensive that the Government should have allowed it to have such a rotten reputation and to behave in such a pathetic way, and then say that they are not conscious of the fact that it has lost its reputation. Perhaps the noble Lord will arrange for a pardon for Admiral Bing.
My Lords, I do not accept the characterisation the noble Earl opposite has described of our Armed Forces today, the Navy in particular. I have seen for myself, on operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the bravery, the commitment and the sacrifice that our young people have made, and are making, for this country. To suggest that they are of a lesser quality than people in the past is completely untrue and unfair.
The reputation of the Royal Navy, whether you consider the Battle of Crete or go back to Trafalgar and our greatest naval hero, Nelson, is the result of learning lessons when things have gone wrong. I recommend to the noble Earl biographies of Nelson, in particular, on that point. Her Majesty's Armed Forces have earned their reputation by being willing to look problems squarely in the face, recognise that they have occurred and rectify them. That has been done, and is being done, in this case.
The way in which the noble Earl described certain aspects of the reporting says more about our modern society and the way in which the media panders to certain aspects of it than it does about our Armed Forces, which I regard as being a true example to our young people of how they should behave.
My Lords, the Minister said that the report stated that the absence of a helicopter or "guard", to use the Minister's own expression, made no difference. I really do not understand that. I thought the whole point—and it was certainly the speculation at the time of the incident—of having those helicopters there was to intervene if such an incident took place.
My Lords, as I have said, I am limited in what I can go into. However, I can make the point to the noble Lord that military operations are undertaken under operating procedures, which describe how a particular task is to be carried out in certain circumstances. The focus of boarding operations and the support of helicopters within that did not require there to be a helicopter on station throughout the boarding operation. That was the standing operating procedure at the time and therefore the reason why the helicopter returned to the ship. As Lieutenant General Fulton, who has looked into the matter, said at the conclusion of his inquiry, issues of equipment and, included within that, issues relating to the availability or otherwise of helicopters, were not a material issue to this incident. He has made that clear.
My Lords, perhaps I may ask my noble friend the question that I asked him on the previous occasion: did this boarding incident take place in disputed waters; that is to say, waters that were claimed by both the Iraqi and Iranian Governments? If they did take place in disputed waters—and I am presuming the report will answer that question—are we to be told that further operations of a similar nature, which have been now resumed, are taking place still in disputed waters in this part of the Gulf?
No, my Lords, the incident did not take place in disputed waters. There is an area that can most clearly be described as a buffer zone. The incident took place in a position that was clearly within Iraqi territorial waters, however one defines that.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I find it hard to comment in any sensible way on General Fulton's report, because I have not seen or heard the full briefing on it, but I would like to return to the issue of single-service directors of public relations. The Minister said earlier that one of the great things about the British Armed Forces is that they learn lessons as matters develop. I wish that Ministers and the civil servants in the Ministry of Defence would keep an open mind about the importance of single-service directors of public relations. Over the time that I have seen them, they have developed hugely important ways not only of educating the press about the challenges facing the Armed Forces but of learning how to handle the press. Just to reinforce the central bit will not give the single service the confidence it needs that the challenges it faces are being properly looked after.
My Lords, I take on board the noble and gallant Lord's point. As he knows, we have discussions with a number of the ex-chiefs about the experiences the Ministry of Defence has had of different structures for handling the press and the existence in the past of one-star single-service press officers. The core review shows a real need to improve the strength and capacity of the MoD press office and, within that, to ensure that military experience and the services are properly and fully represented.
The point of difference, if I understand the noble and gallant Lord's point correctly, is that these military personnel should be in the central MoD because that is where they need to be to handle the modern, 24-hours-a-day media, rather than in the front-line command. One point that comes out of the Hall review is that the way in which the issue went from the central MoD to the naval front-line command fleet was part of the problem. We need to ensure that the central MoD press capacity is integrated with the military component, that the military officers who are part of that are of sufficient seniority and that they are properly embedded to make sure that this does not happen again.
My Lords, I commend the Hall review to the House, which goes into the detail of the process that took place. As the Secretary of State has said, he received the information to note relating to the decision on the Friday. He has said that he takes full responsibility for this matter.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating a Statement made in another place. I also thank him for putting in the organisation and applying the pressure that I know were needed to enable eight Members of the House of Lords last night to receive not just a briefing but copies of the full report and the full list of actions that will take place to rectify the criticisms that came out of the report. The CDS was present, as was the Minister, and we were there for over two hours. I believe our questions were answered in a very open way. I did not have the impression that any one of the eight of us came away from that briefing with the view that General Fulton's report was a whitewash or less than thorough. I thank the Minister for that.
However, many areas needed attention. Training was one of them. If, like me, noble Lords have been close to the services and have always admired the high standard of their training, it will come as something of a disappointment that that was one of the areas of criticism. I welcome the intention to rectify that. Will the Minister confirm, as he did earlier, that there will be monitoring of this and reporting back not only to the House of Lords defence group—which is not a Select Committee, although a number of us feel that there should be a defence Select Committee in this House—but perhaps to this House as well?
The statements by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, while good stuff to laugh at when they are made, in no way caricature the true image of our Armed Forces, particularly the Navy. Indeed, that kind of statement is both cheap talk and outrageous when the young men and women of our Armed Forces are out there as we are talking, risking their lives, day in and day out, in the Middle East.
My Lords, I could not agree more with what my noble friend has just said. I am happy to confirm that the House of Lords defence group, under my noble friend's chairmanship, will have the opportunity to review the implementation of the action plan that comes out of both Hall and Fulton at an appropriate point later this year.
My Lords, I remind the House that I am a serving officer in the TA. Is it not clear that the Fulton report is a damning indictment of the Royal Navy's current state? My noble friend Lord Onslow, I suspect, was referring not to the quality of the service men and women but to the stewardship of the Royal Navy. The report appears to be so bad that only a very few Peers with any relevant experience will be allowed to see it. Even the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, has apparently not seen it. As a result, we do not even know which servicemen received conduct-after-capture training.
The Statement makes it clear that we are not talking about one major error. Apparently there are many failings—a statement of the obvious, I would think. I remind the Minister that I can table six Written Questions every day. When the MoD stops being open with parliamentarians, even with appropriate precautions, we can be sure that the problems are serious and deep-rooted.
My Lords, I understand the noble Earl's frustration in this area, which, as he knows, we have discussed. This was an initiative to provide the House with an opportunity to review the document in the same way that the House of Commons Select Committee had the opportunity to review it. The usual channels, not the Ministry of Defence, determined the composition of the group. The MoD made an offer for a group made up of representatives from all sides of the House to have an opportunity to review that secret "UK eyes only" document, and to do so under privy counsellor rules. That was an initiative to be welcomed by the House, and it reflects the openness of the MoD and our sincere intent to learn the lessons of this incident and implement them. In so far as I can answer any questions relating to this incident that do not prejudice the operational security of our forces, I will of course do so.
My Lords, the Minister deserves the gratitude of the whole House for arranging this briefing. It has set a precedent. Unfortunately, such possibilities were not in place beforehand. I disagree with my noble friend Lady Dean; I think there should be a defence Select Committee in this House. I hope the Minister will pass on to the authorities in this place that there should be a secure room in this House where classified documents can be studied at a convenient time by Members who are deemed entitled to see them.
On the substantive point covered by the Fulton report, which I was lucky to have read, my only question is whether my noble friend can assure us that training in behaviour after capture is more widely extended to personnel in the Royal Navy. It is quite scandalous to try to compare the behaviour of brave young men and women a generation or more ago under fire with that of people who are under acute psychological stress. It is grotesque to dare to suggest that our young men and women today are not as brave as those 20 years ago.
My Lords, I absolutely agree with my noble friend. He makes a very important point about the need for us to update our conduct-after-capture training to take into the account the way in which personnel can be used as psychological pawns when there is 24-hour media coverage. We accept that we need to improve specific task training to complement generic training and the level and type of training for conduct after capture. We need to ensure that all personnel on operations have such training. We have already implemented steps in both regards.
On my noble friend's other point, there is a deficiency in this House in that we do not have the ability to hold secure documents under a process which would enable noble Lords to have access to them in a controlled fashion. That exists in the other place. I learnt of this deficiency when trying to set up such facilities for this group, and suggest that the authorities of the House might like to attend to it.