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Mr. Keetch: In evidence to the Select Committee hearing on 14 May, the Secretary of State said that the chiefs of staff had assured him

about kit. He certainly received complaints from me, but can he tell the House whether he received complaints from Conservative Members about deficiencies in kit in the run-up to operations?

Mr. Hoon: I accept that general points were made about preparations, and I certainly recall individual Members raising those matters with me. Inevitably, in those circumstances, it is necessary to rely on the military advice given at the time, and I shall deal with that more thoroughly in a moment. I am sure that Opposition Members would be the first to complain if they judged that Ministers at a distance in Whitehall were interfering with day-to-day decisions about military capability, which were made, quite properly, by those responsible on the ground.

Turning to specific concerns about equipment deficiencies, the Ministry of Defence is already aware of the need for some improvements in logistics, but those issues must be viewed in the context of the overwhelming success of the operation. Indeed the Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, acknowledged on the day that the NAO report was published that equipment shortfalls

We now know that the shortfalls experienced in a handful of equipment areas did not affect operational capability. The commanders in theatre made their preparations and declared full operational capability to the Ministry of Defence before operations commenced. They were satisfied that they had all the equipment that they required to conduct the campaign successfully. As the NAO points out,

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There is therefore a challenge for Opposition Members. Are they suggesting that Ministers should second-guess the military advice provided by commanders in theatre? If that were the case, and there was evidence of Ministers second-guessing military advice, they would have been, quite rightly, the first to complain. It is their call—are they saying that Ministers should have overridden the advice of military commanders in theatre? That has never been the case in the past, nor should it be the case in future.

Mr. Gray: The right hon. Gentleman has been generous in giving way, but does he not accept that the ethos of the British services has always been to salute, turn to the right and go into battle when instructed to do so by the Secretary of State? None the less, that does not mean that there were not deficiencies in the kit with which they were issued. To argue that the fact that officers on the ground said that they were operationally ready excuses criticism in the NAO report is grossly inadequate.

Mr. Hoon: I'm sorry—I thought the hon. Gentleman had a much closer knowledge and understanding of individual members of the armed forces than his question displayed. Having spent almost four and a half years working closely with them, I assure him and other hon. Members—there are many present who know better than that—that senior members of the armed forces and many junior ones are very forthright in setting out their views and opinions, and certainly would not respond in the way the hon. Gentleman suggested if they thought they were incapable of carrying through a military operation successfully. When he looks at the record of his observation in Hansard, perhaps tomorrow, I think he will realise that that was not the most sensible thing he has ever said to the House.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex rightly raised the issue of body armour, with particular reference to the death of Sergeant Steven Roberts. The hon. Gentleman is well aware that the death of Sergeant Roberts is currently the subject of a Royal Military Police Special Investigation Branch investigation, and it would therefore be inappropriate to comment in detail or to speculate on what the findings of the SIB investigation might be. I have, however, undertaken to keep Sergeant Roberts's widow, Mrs. Samantha Roberts, informed of progress on a regular basis. She has been provided, in confidence, with a summary of the incident in which her husband died, and a ballistics report. I have also met her personally and I have indicated that I would be willing to do so again. Once the SIB investigation has concluded, an Army board of inquiry will be convened.

Perhaps I should explain some of the complicating factors relating to the issue and tracking of body armour during Operation Telic. The Ministry of Defence took the decision to improve the protection offered to servicemen and women deployed on Operation Telic by issuing enhanced combat body armour, initially designed for peacekeeping duties in Northern Ireland, to as many troops as possible. To this end, 38,000 sets of enhanced body armour were sent to theatre, which should have been sufficient to equip all who needed it.

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Not all of this equipment reached every unit in theatre before the start of combat operations. However, the equipment that was known to arrive in theatre was prioritised for those whom commanders judged had the greatest need, ensuring that all dismounted infantry units benefited from this additional protection.

A question has also arisen about 200,000 sets of combat body armour said to have been lost since the Kosovo campaign. Although it is a fact that, once issued, the Defence Logistics Organisation cannot locate each individual set of components that comprise enhanced combat body armour or combat body armour, the body armour components are currently held by individual units and are not, in fact, lost. The defence clothing project team is undertaking an audit with Land Command to establish the basis for future needs and the extent of the Army's holdings, and intends to extend that audit to both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy.

There have also been concerns about the supply of desert boots and desert clothing. The Ministry of Defence's own report acknowledges that, despite a huge effort, a number of soldiers did not receive desert clothing and boots in time. We routinely planned to hold enough desert equipment to support our high readiness forces—some 9,000 personnel. On this occasion we chose to deploy significantly more personnel. To make good the shortfall, an additional 40,000 pairs of desert boots and 80,000 sets of desert clothing were sent to theatre. Not all of this equipment arrived with troops before the start of combat operations. However, front-line forces were equipped as a first priority, and temperatures in the Gulf at that time of year meant that these shortages did not impair our forces' ability to fight.

There have also been suggestions, as we heard today, that our defences against chemical or biological attack were inadequate. I entirely reject that suggestion and agree with the NAO that overall the protection against chemical agents was good. UK forces were deployed with comprehensive defences against chemical and biological attack. There were in general already sufficient stocks of nuclear, biological and chemical defence equipment in store to mount Operation Telic. Furthermore, strenuous efforts were made to address any shortfalls that were identified in our regular stockholding during the preparation and planning period. Again, that is set out clearly in the NAO's report.

Patrick Mercer: During exercise Saif Sareea we on the Defence Committee were able to see armoured crews practising for chemical conditions without personal equipment being worn, on the clear understanding that NBC vehicle filters would be in place. I do not need to labour the point about the efficiency of the crew when wearing their masks. The Secretary of State mentioned that such preparation was in place. He mentioned that

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lessons were learned from Saif Sareea. That does not seem to be the case.

Mr. Hoon: I do not accept that for a moment. I shall go on to deal with the point. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue the matter further after that, I shall be delighted to give way to him again.

In the event, all service personnel had their own personal respirator and at least one NBC suit before the start of combat operations. In addition, a variety of detection systems were deployed to the Gulf to provide early warning of any attack, which thankfully never came. We believe the chemical and biological protection given to our troops is among the very best in the world. We have acknowledged in our own reports that there were deficiencies in the way stocks of some NBC equipment were managed. The Department is working hard to ensure that that does not occur again. However, as the NAO recognises in its report, mitigating action was taken through a combination of purchasing spare parts and rigorous re-testing of equipment. The operational requirement was consequently fully met.

Despite the difficulties that the NAO report and our own reports have identified, we must not lose sight of the fact that the Ministry of Defence once again performed with distinction, the equipment provided for the armed forces was very effective, its logistic support was most impressive, and the revolution in strategy and doctrine that we instigated in 1998 has again been vindicated.

Mr. Soames: In my comments at the beginning and end of my speech, I was at pains to dispense rightful praise to all involved in what was a military success. There remain, however, some glaring deficiencies, which the right hon. Gentleman refuses to deal with, or deals with in such a way that everything, apparently, is perfectly okay. May I draw his attention to figure 12 of the NAO report, which summarises the repeated identification of logistics lessons from previous operations and previous exercises? In Saif Sareea, the lessons learned involved poor asset tracking, poor logistic communications, stock shortages, priority deadlines not met and lack of control over the coupling bridge. Exactly the same lessons seem to have to be learned in Telic. Why were the lessons of Saif Sareea not more swiftly put in place?

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