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Mr. Keetch: The Secretary of State is absolutely right. He was also right to comment in his speech on the fact that the previous Government had not invested in such

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equipment. Poor asset tracking was regarded as a problem in the Bosnia and Herzegovina operation back in 1995–96, and I seem to remember that the Conservatives were then in power.

To go back to boots, the kind of equipment and body armour that was lacking could have saved Sergeant Roberts's life. Many Members highlighted such problems at the time, based on the complaints that they had received from forces families, but we were told again and again that there was no problem, that the press were exaggerating and that every person was fully equipped. Indeed, the Secretary of State told the Select Committee on Defence in evidence on 14 May that

Clearly, that was not just the odd soldier. As the report rightly said, "few troops" received their full complement of desert clothing and boots. As the Secretary of State has said, members of the armed forces were very quick to respond and to complain. They certainly complained to me. It was because of those problems that, as they told me before the conflict, they were nicknamed "the borrowers" by their US counterparts.

We also know that the NBC equipment problems were experienced against a background in which weapons of mass destruction might actually have been deployed, despite the comments in the Carnegie report and those of Mr. O'Neill. Before the war, the Government were at times almost hysterical about the possibilities regarding weapons of mass destruction, but the priority given to NBC equipment seems to give the lie to their concern. As we know, and as has already been said, some soldiers returned to the UK to search for their NBC equipment, and just over half the NBC detection equipment and NBC filters for armoured vehicles were not even delivered, let alone fitted. What is more, according to the report, only 10 per cent. of NBC vehicle decontamination systems were in place before the start of combat operations on 19 March.

In the event, it seems that we should be very thankful that Saddam Hussein either did not have or did not deploy weapons of mass destruction. However, if WMD are to be the greatest threat facing our country in future, the ability to defend our troops against chemical or biological attack simply must be improved.

Supply problems, especially in relation to AS90 guns and Challenger tanks, meant that many vehicles—indeed, up to 30 per cent. of the fleet at home—were cannibalised for spares. Where does that leave our armoured capability, and how long will it take the Ministry of Defence to get back to its required targets?

It is not just with kit and equipment that there were problems. We have said before that we believe that the armed forces are experiencing overstretch, and the strain on our armed forces has been exacerbated by Iraq. We do not need an NAO report to tell us that, but its recommendations must be taken seriously. Overstretch is not merely an unfortunate constraint on the ability to deploy: it affects our ability to win battles and to save lives in combat. The Defence Medical Services were rightly highlighted in that context. Key specialisations need to be addressed, and troops should not go into combat uncertain about their capabilities or their support staff. Reservists have been relied on to an

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enormous extent—we owe them a true debt of gratitude—but the conditions and confusions surrounding their terms of service have alienated many. Conditions for those who fill the breach must improve—otherwise, the shortfall that has appeared will not be met, but increased.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, this is probably one of the first times that an NAO report has been discussed in the Chamber without yet having gone to the Public Accounts Committee. Every word that is uttered will be entered into evidence to allow the PAC to grill the Department on the report. Will he try to ensure that those of us on the PAC are given the opportunity to remain non-political in assessing the facts and the surrounding evidence?

Mr. Keetch: The hon. Gentleman is right about the PAC. Although lessons have been learned from the operation, some of its long-term consequences will not be known for many months or years, and we will have to return to them.

The report is critical of post-war planning. If Operation Telic was a military success, the Government's lack of foresight, given what followed, certainly was not. The report makes plain what we all knew, stating on page 32 that

Our armed forces performed all their usual tasks in their usual way, but the Government's planning before and in the aftermath of the war was inadequate. How could that be so? If ever there was a war that we could see coming, it was surely this one.

I commend our armed forces for again demonstrating that they are the best in the world, but I urge the Government to learn not only the operational lessons of Operation Telic, but the political and strategic lessons of going to war without international support. This was not a war of necessity, but a war of choice by the Prime Minister and the President of the United States. There were, as we maintained, other ways of dealing with Iraq. As the former Chief of the Defence Staff pointed out, we are currently not in a position to mount a major operation and will not be for some time. The Government must ensure that the lessons set out in the report are learned and, more importantly, put into practice. Our armed forces have again shown their skill and great courage, and the Government must play their part.

I hope that the Conservatives—Her Majesty's loyal Opposition—will also learn those lessons. I asked the shadow Defence Secretary whether his predecessor and the previous leader of the Conservative party were told of the concerns that I have raised when they visited the Gulf at the beginning of last year. On 13 March last year, the then shadow Defence Secretary told The Daily Telegraph that

Perhaps the shadow Defence Secretary should not be so quick to accept the Government's assurances. I hope that Conservative Members, who were so readily convinced in their blind rush to go to war, will not be so easily appeased in future.

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1.44 pm

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I congratulate the Opposition spokesman on choosing the subject of the National Audit Office report. That was courageous of him, because nobody can be in any doubt that even a cursory reading illustrates the tremendous military success of Operation Telic and the way in which our forces were protected in an incredibly difficult and dangerous theatre of war.

The references that have been made to the length of time that was available to prepare for the operation are not entirely accurate. Not only did we make one of the most rapid deployments of British forces in our entire military history—almost 46,000 troops were transported more than 3,000 miles within 10 weeks, which is less than half the time that it took to deploy forces in the first Gulf war—but we had to deploy them at very short notice in a scenario that was not anticipated. It was originally planned that the British support role was to be based, with our allies, the Americans, in northern Iraq and southern Turkey; but, at incredibly short notice, we had to reconfigure all our forces to Kuwait and to approaches from the south. That would have presented an enormous logistical challenge to a relatively small force, let alone a force on that scale. In addition to the massive movements of personnel, thousands of vehicles, hundreds of planes and several warships were deployed. It seems incredible to me, even with my very limited experience of military matters, that we were able to mount such an operation. The criticisms that have been made are meagre in comparison with its military success and the speed with which it was undertaken.

As for inadequate equipment, one of the most important aspects of an operation of such danger was the limited number of British casualties. If we were ill prepared and ill equipped, had not planned properly, and did not have such excellent military leadership, the number of casualties—not only military, but civilian—would have been far higher. As the report makes clear, the gloom and doom merchants who predicted tens or hundreds of thousands of casualties were proved wrong by the great success of the operation in terms of planning, equipment and support. I am saddened by the comments of Conservative Members, because they know better. In relation to the inadequate supply of boots or clothing, when has it ever been any different? Asset tracking sounds wonderful—we owe it to the taxpayer and to our soldiers in the field to pursue it—but it is simply not true that the problem has only just appeared on the horizon and exposes and threatens our forces. When moving so many items of equipment, the idea that one is in the warehouse of an Asda or some other well known supermarket and can track the destination of every tin of beans, identify how much is being sold and relate back from the till to the men and women in the warehouse is nonsense. You are on a battlefield for goodness sake—under threat with life at stake. The equipment must be managed in the most difficult circumstances.

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