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Mr. Speaker: Order. It is best for the Secretary of State not to reply to that question, because we are going far too wide of the matter before us.

Mr. Hoon rose—

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hoon: I shall certainly give way.

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

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

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

Dr. Lewis: With respect, the Secretary of State has not answered my question. If the people in the tanks had been subjected to a chemical or biological attack, the agents would have got into the tanks because of the absence of the correct filters and the individuals would have died. Similarly, there was a 40 per cent. shortage of detection kits. Unless people have detection kits, they do

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not know that attacks—especially biological attacks—are under way until some time after they have begun, so does he agree that individuals were gravely at risk?

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

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

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

Mr. Michael Portillo (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): I am worried that the Secretary of State may have put himself in a ridiculous position by arguing that those filters were not necessary. If they were necessary, they should have been fitted. If they were not, they should not have been ordered. What is the position?

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

We were discussing the question of lessons learned. The procedure adopted by the Ministry of Defence ensures that there is a thorough lessons learned process

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

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

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

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

Mr. Hoon: I am simply not aware of that. The hon. Gentleman has previously raised this matter with me and with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who intends to deal with it in correspondence. I am not

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aware that individuals were placed in that position, but I shall certainly have the matter investigated, and have previously undertaken to ensure that it is brought to the attention of those responsible. If what the hon. Gentleman says proves to be the case, I shall write to him.

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

and I undertook to be

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

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

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