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Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and apologise to the Secretary of State for being absent for his

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contribution this afternoon, when I was at a meeting. The hon. Gentleman makes the interesting point that the boots were not so important and that perhaps the problem has arisen previously. Does he feel the same about the failure to supply ceramic plates for flak jackets and the fact that men and women on active duty had flak jackets without adequate protection to stop a bullet?

Mr. Smith: I never said that. I said that, when referring to an apparent lack of protective equipment, we should consider the number of fatalities. Every one is a tragedy, but there is sufficient proof that the large-scale military operation was conducted in such a way that the lives and interests of our troops were protected. The bottom line is that whether to put troops into the field and whether they are adequately protected are military decisions. Ministers and politicians—certainly not those present—do not make such decisions.

Mr. Hancock: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is currently an investigation into the death of one of our servicemen who might not have been killed had he been wearing the right protective equipment?

Mr. Smith: Everyone in the House awaits the outcome with interest. If there are lessons to be learned from that, as well as general lessons, I am sure that we shall take them on board.

I want to speak about the availability of equipment. References have been made to the full complement of protective equipment and clothing. Anyone who has been in the military realises that there is a huge difference between a full complement and what is needed to do the job. I understand that three sets of military fatigues are considered a full complement—strictly speaking, what is needed to go into an operational area. Of course, that does not happen.

Decisions about clothing, equipment and munitions are made when it is almost impossible to track what is going on. Let me give an example from my experience. I have been involved in an operation in which vital equipment is flown in and unloaded, and several well meaning, usually young and inexperienced, officers direct where it should go—where it is vital and where it is not so important. Everybody salutes and agrees to carry out the commands, but a couple of experienced non-commissioned officers who have previously been in such situations say, "Don't take too much notice of that. This is where the equipment's going and this is where it's needed." Frankly, that is often what makes British forces so effective. We have not only experienced officers but NCOs who can make key decisions and take leadership roles on the battlefield.

Of course, stuff goes missing—stacks of it go missing. As a former serviceman, I found one word in the report very interesting. It says that equipment is "misappropriated". That means that military personnel who need it grab it while they can. They want to be able to use it when they need it. I emphasise to hon. Members who do not know it that such decisions are made all the time in the heat of battle and war. The idea that one can introduce a system, whether it is called asset tracking or anything else, which works efficiently in a battle does not

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stand up. We should work towards it, but we shall be lucky if we are in a position in future to locate assets easily in such circumstances.

The report is interesting, but we must bear in mind the fact that it is written by auditors. Military personnel or people with direct experience of military decision making certainly did not write it. By and large, it reads like an auditors' report. It is about value for money and what has happened to some of the equipment that was put in the field. That is clear from references to our personnel's ability to adapt and modify equipment on the battlefield because they do not get exactly what they want when they want it and for the task for which it is needed.

Mr. Gray: Does the hon. Gentleman seriously suggest that the fact that our soldiers are good at making do and mending excuses our not providing the proper equipment in the first place?

Mr. Smith: No, I am not trying to say that. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that British soldiers are the best in the world at adapting to circumstances, modifying equipment and recovering vehicles on the battlefield. They lead the rest of the world in their ability to be flexible and adaptable. That is why they are playing such an important—indeed, invaluable—role in the current military operation under the overall control of the United States. Opposition Members have simply provided a catalogue of logistical failures.

Mr. Gray: That is in the report.

Mr. Smith: No, it is not. The report's overall conclusion is that the operation was a huge military success conducted in a hostile and austere environment. We achieved our military objectives and we should have nothing but praise for our military forces, the Ministry of Defence and the conduct of our Ministers throughout the military operation. [Interruption.] Hon. Members will not hear me lavishing praise on Ministers unless I believe that it is justly deserved. Today, it is deserved and the report shows the reasons for that. I am therefore pleased that the subject was chosen as the topic for today's debate. We should all be proud of such a huge military success.

We need to be careful when we draw parallels, but some of the comparisons between the way in which British forces and others conducted themselves in the theatre of operations and post-war show the former's greater experience and professionalism, and better training. Of course, they must have the equipment and the ability to do their job properly. They have done a tremendous job. I am extremely proud—and I am sure that everybody is—to see our armed forces excel.

However, as the Secretary of State made clear, there are important lessons to be learned from the report. I emphasise that it is an auditors' report, not a military report. We should bear that in mind. I am sure that anyone who was involved in drawing up the report has little military experience. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned.

We have made great inroads into the logistical chain in the military. Major new policies have been introduced on smart procurement and streamlining and rationing

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our supplies, equipment and stores, and on just-in-time technology to try to ensure that vital equipment gets to the right place at the right time. I think that we have made great progress in that respect. The Opposition accuse us of not being able to account for some body armour, a relatively small matter. In 1997, the Conservative Government could not account for a fleet of trains owned by the Ministry of Defence. The missing items included rolling stock, track, railway sidings, land, property—and even 600 horses for which the MoD was still responsible.

That is not so long ago, but in those days there was virtually no asset checking or auditing. It was a great innovation when someone sat down and asked, "What exactly do we own?" We need take no lessons from the Opposition about managing our stocks and assets, but we need to be careful and to take some elements in the report seriously. It states that, in some cases, equipment arrived only hours before it was needed in battle. Our armed forces were working in very difficult circumstances to prepare for dangerous conflict. We need to learn that lesson.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the report's basic conclusion that the military did not receive all the necessary equipment on time? If body armour and filters had been received on time, our military personnel would have been better protected. Moreover, does he agree that that equipment would have arrived before military action took place if the rush to war had not been driven by the American Government?

Mr. John Smith: I do not accept that. The hon. Gentleman assumes that war is an exact science, but it is not. The problem is that, in the fog of war and military action, it is hard to know what is going on, and I shall give the House one example of that.

Mention has been made already of how British soldiers had to borrow equipment from their American counterparts. I know that they were very keen to borrow the Haagen Dazs ice cream available in the air-conditioned American tents in the battlefield. Also available there was food from McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken. However, some of the contractors supplying that food were not covered by war-zone insurance and so left as quickly as they could. As a result, British service personnel—and the RAF in particular—ended up feeding US military forces as well as their own.

There were many examples of coalition forces working together, often without all the necessary equipment, and often not in the environment in which they would choose to fight. But that is what war is all about. It is not an exact science, although it is crucial that we learn the lessons about support and supply by contractors.

I turn now to a matter that interests me greatly, the Defence Aviation Repair Agency. That agency is crucial to the recommendations in the report, and especially to the lessons that must be learned. What is clear is that the military cannot be asked to depend and rely on private sector techniques when it comes to the supply of components and essential equipment.

Having the proper equipment is vital. Enough of it must be held in store so that troops going into battle are adequately protected and supplied. A total reliance on

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private sector providers and on just-in-time supply could end in disaster. The report makes that clear, and it is right for the Government to look at the role of agencies in the Ministry of Defence. They offer all the benefits of a commercial organisation, and operate according to business and commercial imperatives, but remain wholly owned subsidiaries of the Ministry of Defence. They are able to compete with any private sector organisation in respect of component supply, deep repair and maintenance, but they remain integral parts of the MOD.

Those agencies are able to deliver for the military in the sort of unexpected circumstances that were encountered in the military action in Iraq. It is impossible to predict exactly what is going to happen, but the necessary supplies must be made available. It has been stated that personnel had to fly back to Britain to make sure that they got the equipment that they needed, but the Defence Aviation Repair Agency is an organisation that can meet all the demands of the taxpayer when it comes to value for money. Most importantly, it retains the surge capacity to meet the demands that arise when military action is taken.

One lesson to be drawn from the report, and from our experience in Iraq, is that the Government would do well to look the role played by such agencies. They are vital in ensuring that military personnel are put into the field, and sustained there. The agencies are not subject to the vagaries suffered by contractors and purely commercial organisations.

I am delighted that the Defence Aviation Repair Agency has appointed a new chief executive. He used to work for Rolls-Royce, and I hope to meet him very shortly. I am sure that we will discuss some of the lessons to be drawn from this excellent report.

Our soldiers were not placed at risk. No one should believe that. To say that they were is merely a piece of populist scaremongering. It is unfortunate that the Opposition should have decided to take that approach today. The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), rightly began by paying tribute to the military's huge success in Iraq. If he had sat down then, this debate could have allowed us to pay tribute to the outstanding work of our servicemen and women and to have a serious discussion of the recommendations in the NAO report. Instead. the House was treated to a lot of petty and ill informed references to our forces' exposure to alleged risks that simply did not exist.

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