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Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Soames: 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

Mr. Foulkes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Soames: Indeed.

Mr. Foulkes: 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?

Mr. Soames: 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.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): 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:

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?

Mr. Soames: The hon. Gentleman has a particular interest in respect of the defence fire service. I am not

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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.

1 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I beg to move in line 3, to leave out from "Iraq" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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

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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 the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (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.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): 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?

Mr. Hoon: 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.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): 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?

Mr. Hoon: I understand perfectly well why my hon. Friend raises that issue, because it is a matter of some

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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.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): 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?

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