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Jim Knight (South Dorset) (Lab): I have listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman's comments about the Secretary of State. Has he read part 7 of the report, which is headed, "The Department has a comprehensive process for identifying lessons"? The report says clearly

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that the Secretary of State's Department is learning the lessons, identifying them, and moving forward as the House would expect.

Mr. Portillo: If one theme of today's debate is accountability, the other is leadership. The conviction with which the lesson-learning capability is pursued, and the success of the process, will depend crucially on the attitude of the Secretary of State. That is what leadership in the Department is all about. If the feeling runs through the Department that the Secretary of State thinks these matters need not be addressed urgently, and that it was more important to come here and make a political case than to show slightly more humility and say that things needed to be put right, a difficulty will be created.

Mr. Hoon: I have listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman's observations. At the risk of appearing to plead the case for my defence, let me assure him that I commissioned the lesson-learning process undertaken by the Department. I made it clear, as I made it clear to the House today, that I wanted it to be rigorous, and did not want anyone to gloss over any of the difficulties that we face. The clear implication of that is that I want the lessons to be learnt properly. If I gave the right hon. Gentleman or the House the impression that I was not taking criticisms seriously, the right hon. Gentleman should accept that I was responsible for demanding that the Department look hard at the lessons that we had to learn.

Mr. Portillo: That would have made an outstanding paragraph in the Secretary of State's speech. I am sorry that we have had to drag it out of him now.

The criticisms relate to serious matters. For instance, 40 per cent. of the necessary uniforms and boots were not available by the time of the conflict. We have already discussed nuclear, biological and chemical suits at length, but I must echo a point made by both my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), which is that it is particularly extraordinary that there should have been deficiencies in that regard, given the Government's emphasis on weapons of mass destruction in their original case for the war.

If politics is about one thing, it is about priorities. If the Secretary of State and his colleagues had made the case for the war on the basis that we must get rid of weapons of mass destruction, what could have been a greater priority for them than to equip the armed forces thoroughly so that they could meet that threat? That was a lacuna in the Secretary of State's speech. At one point there was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing across the Chamber over whether filters were necessary for the protection of troops. I did not feel that that did the Secretary of State any credit; it would have been better had he said much earlier that the filters had been necessary, and that he was sorry they had not been provided.

Some of the deficiencies led to almost farcical situations. The engines and main assemblies for combat vehicles could not be tracked down, although the Defence Logistics Organisation held information about the supplies. Because those in the field could not be sure

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that they would receive the equipment—although it was in the chain of supply—they had to "cannibalise" equipment in Germany to acquire duplicates. The Lynx anti-tank helicopter was available for only 53 per cent. of the time—the entire span of time, that is, not just the combat period.

The report is too fair to the Government in one respect. It makes the point—repeated by a number of Members today—that deployment took half the time that it took for the first Gulf war, but this war was seen coming much earlier than that one. No one knew at the end of July 1990 that Kuwait would be invaded, but our forces were in action in January the following year. In this case we saw the possibility of action in Iraq at least a year before it happened—some would say as long ago as 9/11, and, according to Paul O'Neill, the former US Treasury Secretary, as long ago as the day on which President Bush came to office.

Let me remind the Secretary of State that boots and uniforms are small items that could have been stocked without any implication that the Government were disingenuously and dishonestly planning for war. These are the bills for those items: desert boots £742,000, desert trousers £886,800, jackets about £1 million. Those are tiny amounts. Surely the Secretary of State had discretion to spend those amounts during the period before the war in order to ensure that our forces had the necessary equipment, given what was becoming a likelihood of their being deployed in a hot weather area.

Jim Knight: Does the right hon. Gentleman not recall the fevered political atmosphere and intense media scrutiny in the run-up to military action? If the media had been able to report the procurement of those items and their deployment in theatre, that would have demonstrated that military action was inevitable and that the whole United Nations process was a sham. The point at which the UN process collapsed was the point at which the items could go into theatre.

Mr. Portillo: The hon. Gentleman speaks with appalling frankness. He underlines the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex, when the hon. Gentleman was probably not in the Chamber. My hon. Friend's point was that a lack of political will, courage and commitment led to the failure to order the equipment. I am allowing for that, however. Even given a Government who lacked those qualities, I believe that the Secretary of State could have ordered uniforms and boots without upsetting the entire United Nations process—or without anyone being led to think that it was being upset.

Let me say a little about the post-war position. As has been said, the report refers to a lack of preparation, but our forces have performed a brilliant post-war improvisation for which they deserve congratulations. Their success in Basra, and the way in which they have operated as an occupying force, is most impressive. I concede that Basra is an easier place than Baghdad in which to operate, and I do not think that we should jump to drawing facile comparisons between British and American forces, but I still think that what our forces have achieved is superb.

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I say this to people who are going around spreading gloom. Of course our forces are in great danger from terrorism in Iraq today, but our history—particularly in Northern Ireland—suggests that there are many things we could do to overcome the terrorist threat, which would rapidly improve the situation and our forces' security. One possibility is the establishment of intelligence. Now that we are there and now that the Americans have been in theatre for some time, intelligence assets and the flow of intelligence are much improved. A second option is the disruption of the enemy's leadership. Clearly, the seizure of Saddam Hussein is a signal accomplishment in that regard. Thirdly, operational matters could be reviewed and changed. I am thinking particularly of the flying of helicopters by the United States.

This, I think, is the charge against the Secretary of State today. While the award he has received from the United States indicates that his strategic leadership was probably of a high order—that is obviously the opinion of the United States—I think that he has been responsible for important failures in his attention to detail. I think there was a lack of political courage at the end of 2002 which prevented the ordering of vital equipment, a failure to establish clear priorities, and a lack of political nous—a lack of understanding of what it was possible to do without matters being made public, or being seen to have broader implications than they actually had.

Until the Secretary of State intervened a moment ago, I thought that he had brought to the House a rather complacent tone that would not inspire confidence among the armed forces that he would heed the lessons that needed to be learnt. It might be useful if, in responding to the debate, the Minister of State demonstrated a humbler approach on the Government's part.

Let us hope that our forces will return safely at the appropriate time, so that we and their families can welcome them—just as the House took pleasure in welcoming the safe return of my hon. Friends the Members for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) and for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne).

2.28 pm

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): As Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, I do not wish to pre-empt my Committee's hearing on the operation next week. The recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and his staff at the National Audit Office, however, raises important issues on which the Committee will focus when taking evidence from Ministry of Defence officials, including the permanent secretary.

First, let me join others in paying tribute to the gallantry of the men and women of our armed forces whom we sent to fight in Iraq on our behalf. I congratulate those whose job was to deliver, support and recover them over such great distances. The United Kingdom coalition forces achieved their main military objectives: that must be said for the sake of balance. They removed Saddam Hussein and his regime and gained control of key locations and infrastructure within just four weeks. As the National Audit Office reports, UK forces, amounting to more than 45,000 personnel and 15,000 vehicles, were deployed in half the time taken for the first Gulf war.

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I note the important point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo), but the fact is that those forces were deployed in time. Equipment performed well: production of the Storm Shadow cruise missile was brought forward and it was used to hit targets in Iraq. The troubled SA80 assault rifle, now upgraded, appeared to be a much more reliable performer. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea and others mentioned the Challenger 2 main battle tank. When my Committee examined the earlier exercise in Oman, it found that the tank suffered from major problems with sand entering its air filters, but, once properly modified for desert conditions, it performed impressively.

In the interest of balance—I am not here to make party political points—I reiterate that the Secretary of State said that, overall, the logistic effort was successful and key equipment was delivered. The Secretary of State made that point many times, and we accept it, but we are now talking about a National Audit Office report. The National Audit Office is perfectly entitled, within the totality of a successful effort, to draw attention to particular shortcomings. Underlying the overall success, there were some difficulties, where major performance improvements need to be made. My Committee will be asking tough questions of the permanent secretary next week.

There are two particular aspects of concern: first, the lack of protective kit for troops in the front line; and the failure yet again of logistic systems, leading to confusion about the location of key supplies. The National Audit Office report makes it abundantly clear that our troops at the front line were short of a range of vital equipment when the war began. I find it astonishing that we could send our men and women into action without the right kit. For example, there was a lack of potentially life-saving body armour. Incredibly, as has been said by others, given the rationale for the war, our forces were short of vital biological and chemical warfare protection equipment, and they were again short of the correct desert clothing and boots. What lay behind that unsatisfactory state of affairs?

The National Audit Office has reported that the Ministry of Defence did not have enough supplies of important items on the shelves, including chemical and biological warfare protection equipment, spares for armoured vehicles and the right desert clothing. We do not need to engage in a party political debate to apportion blame between the parties, but we do need—I look carefully at the Minister as I say this—to talk about mistakes in an honest and open way, and learn from them.

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