Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 1033 - 1039)




  1033. John, welcome again. As you know, we published our report on DERA yesterday. Your two appearances before us were bravura performances, we did not believe a word of it. You delivered a Geoffrey Boycott style of straight bat to some ferocious fast balls, slow balls and wides.
  (Lord Gilbert) That was ferocious?

  Mr Cann: This is good cricket


  1034. Now with the freedom of elder statesman status, no longer in the firing line, you have looked at the report. Is there anything you think we have said that you think is wrong? You have very good connections with the United States. Is there anything you would perhaps like to add to that?
  (Lord Gilbert) First of all, thank you all very much for inviting me here and turning up so you have got a quorum. I was not prepared to talk much about DERA, I have been checking up on all of the things I want to say to you on Kosovo. With respect to your DERA report, the game is not over yet, as I am sure you know. I think I said on the floor of the Other Place a few weeks ago that I had recently been in touch with senior officials in Washington who had said to me that they were satisfied with what the Ministry of Defence is now proposing, subject to three provisos, three very important provisos, with which I am sure you are familiar. I made it clear on the floor of the Other Place that I was aware of this. The Americans that I was talking to assured me that they would not come to a final agreement on our proposals until they had gone back to their grass roots people in the laboratories to see if they were satisfied. What I found most encouraging was the attitude of the Americans that it was extremely important to them that we got this right and the last thing they wanted was to have a foul up. I think what I said is reflected in Baroness Symons' remarks when she said that the Americans were broadly satisfied with the proposals but clearly not yet completely satisfied. Unless they are completely satisfied then I think enormous damage could be done to this country for the indefinite future and the really serious thing is that we will not know what we are not having; it is going to be insidious; it just will not happen. That is why I think it is absolutely essential to get a ringing vote of confidence from the Americans at the end of this process. I can think of no single thing that is more important for the future defence of this country.

  1035. This is our third report in two years and we have threatened a fourth. Once they announce the chairman of flogged-off DERA—of course it will be John Chisholm—we will invite him in and whoever is invited to chair what is left of DERA we will invite him or her in. If they introduce primary legislation then we will have a public session or two. If they try to introduce it by secondary legislation we have a precedent for examining that issue as far as we are concerned. In fairness, nobody has had a go at me to fade away on this and we will persist in examining to ensure that the result is the right one. According to the Financial Times today it is game, set and match, virtually everybody has now been assured and the MoD will get their way. The article shows a heavy amount of spin that I thought had disappeared over the last couple of weeks. The fact that the spinning, in my view, was done in the Financial Times had a distinct motive of not frightening the horses but, I am afraid to say, there is a lot of frightening to be done before this is finally resolved. We are not inflexible but even the compromise that emerged has so many unanswered questions, there were so many things they could not divulge to us, there were so many things to which apparently they have not given sufficient thought to. To expect a ringing endorsement from a half empty document, as we looked at it, is being rather optimistic. When they have done all their thinking and then presented a response to the consultation period we will then get Baroness Symons in so she can give the definitive version of the consultation. She was here last time from 10.30 until 1.30 and it will be as long as that again. We are continuing our endeavour to get the right decision out of the Government.
  (Lord Gilbert) I think it is no secret, Chairman, that, when I was with the Ministry of Defence I was not in the least bit happy with the original proposals. I made that fairly clear. I like to think that I made a contribution by insisting with our American friends that they just did not give us polite answers; we wanted to know exactly what they thought. It is my impression that they have spoken very frankly with people at various levels in the Ministry of Defence. I am sure you have your contacts in Washington better than mine, but when—

  1036. Never better than yours.
  (Lord Gilbert) When an announcement is made that we have come to the end of the road I certainly propose to satisfy myself by talking to people in Washington and I do not propose to accept merely what the Ministry of Defence says. I have no doubt that you and I might have a private conversation at that point in time, if that is agreeable.

  1037. Thank you for those remarks. John, we are coming to the conclusion of our public hearings into the Lessons of Kosovo with the Secretary of State tomorrow. Really we have a whole series of disparate questions, we have not got any set formally, we will just play it as it comes. I know you were pretty active during the conflict, so the first easy question is what did you do in the war, Dr Gilbert?
  (Lord Gilbert) Well, Chairman, my credentials for appearing in front of your Committee, and I am extremely grateful because I know you have taken a lot of official evidence and you are right at the end of your hearings, are that we had an 8.30 meeting every morning in the Defence Crisis Management Centre as you probably know, and I was present at every single one of them; nobody else came anywhere near that batting record. I chaired, shall we say, 20 per cent, possibly more. I chaired every one when my boss was not there. We also had mop-up meetings in the evening, 6.00/7.30, when actually more was discussed than at the 8.30 meetings. I missed only two of those from the start to finish of the campaign and its aftermath. I was also present at all but about five or six of the press conferences. I do not seek in any way to exaggerate my role in things, which was really extremely small, and I do not think I took part in any really serious decision making at all, although I did try to put my oar in. All I am saying is that I think, as far as the collective memory of the MoD is concerned as to what actually happened inside the building in that period, there are not many people who had quite so comprehensive a view as I did. My boss told me that I had seen every single piece of paper on Kosovo that he had. I am not at all sure that was the case. I am not accusing him of falsifying events, his memory may have been faulty, he may not have known what I saw and what he saw, but still he assured me of that. I did also see the reports, for example, on all the conversations between the Prime Minister and President Clinton and Mr Chirac and Mr Schroder—bar only one weekend when things got a little rocky between Downing Street and the White House and there were telephone calls which, of course, were not circulated.

  1038. Thank you. In terms of the heroic figures and the heroic countries, who would you put high on that list in helping to achieve the eventual, with great difficulty, successful outcome?
  (Lord Gilbert) I am happy to start at that end of the matter, Chairman. I think that NATO owes a great debt of gratitude mainly to its friends in South East Europe. I think the Hungarian, Bulgarian and Romanian Governments showed enormous courage. First of all, the Hungarian and Romanian Governments received demands from the Russians for the use of their air space. They turned these demands down flat without having the slightest idea what the consequences to them might be. For all they knew they might have been very serious. The Hungarians did likewise and allowed our planes to use their air space, as did a certain non-NATO country because you will be familiar from the map, Chairman, with the fact that it is impossible to get to Hungary from other NATO air space without going through non-NATO air space, such is the nonsense of the nature of the enlargement of NATO that took place a little while ago. I cannot recall offhand whether we actually used Bulgarian and Romanian air space, but they were certainly prepared to allow us to do so. I think the next government which deserves a huge amount of praise is the Greek Government. I would single out in that government the Defence Minister, whose name I have got written down somewhere but I am sure you know it. It is a very long name.

  1039. We will find out and insert it.
  (Lord Gilbert) The point being, Chairman, that consistently—

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