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Much of the £600 million made available by the Treasury was used to address the shortages, some of which, as we know, the Ministry of Defence had been aware of for several years. Such urgent procurement action carries a number of risks, which became apparent. For example, some equipment or stock
The last-minute procurement also means limited time to train on new arms. For example, the National Audit Office report tells us that the Minimi light machine gun was issued to battle groups of the 7th Armoured Brigade less than a week before hostilities began, with few spare parts and without the equipment for zeroing the weapons. The failure to have the right stocks was compounded by the Ministry of Defence assuming that there would be time for suppliers to make up the shortages before going to war. In many examples, such as desert clothing, that was not the case.
I make no comment about what was going on in the political process at the time. It may have had an impact, but surely it was all foreseeable. Surely it was obvious many months earlier that a war in the desert was likely, and the kit could have been purchased in time. In next week's hearingand, I hope, in our reportwe will press the Ministry of Defence on why that was not done. The late delivery of the urgent items meant either that our troops did not have important pieces of equipment, or that, when it arrived at the last minute, they had little opportunity to familiarise themselves with new weapons and equipment.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the shortages were caused by a reduction in stockholdings, supposedly to reduce costs. When things have to be procured at the last moment, it is easy to be the victim of those who are prepared to sell them at a certain price. The perceived cost saving is often illusory and one can end up paying as much, if not more, than if an item was in stock in the first place.
Mr. Leigh: That is a fair point, but I do not believe that so far we have discovered any instances of war profiteering, which clearly took place in previous conflicts. Still, as I said, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but is it the best way to send our soldiers into battlein the wrong clothing, missing vital items and with unfamiliar weapons?
Another major cause of the shortages is all too familiar to my Committee. The National Audit Office reported that in several cases equipment made it to Kuwait, but the lack of an effective logistics tracking system prevented it from being delivered to the front line. The report paints a picture of muddle and confusion. Troops who should have been preparing themselves for the forthcoming conflict were forced to search containers scattered across Kuwait for supplies that had gone missing.
The most disturbing example is probably that the biological and chemical filters for armoured vehicles had disappeareda point made several times in the debate. When the war started, none of our armed vehicles had the working filters. Indeed, by the time that National Audit Office staff went to Iraq in June 2003, they had still not appeared. We should be thankful that Saddam Hussein's regime did not, in the event, have the dreadful weapons ready for use against our forces, but it is not good enough for the Ministry of Defence to give the impression, as did the Secretary of State in the debate, that the filters were not needed because the troops inside the vehicles would have had the right clothing. How could they perform adequately in those conditions? That point was well made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea, so I shall not labour it, and my Committee can return to it.
Every report that my Committee has produced for major operationsfrom the first Gulf war onwardshas highlighted the supply tracking issue. Time and again the inability to track supplies has caused significant difficulties. Time and again, the Ministry of Defence has assured us that the problem is being addressed. We will ask the MOD to assure us that implementation of its own lessons and the repeated recommendations from Committees of the House are taken seriously.
In reply to my predecessor's report on operations in Iraq in 199091, we were assured that action had been taken to improve both the management of movements and the tracking of assets, and that the Department had developed for its own use those commercial systems that it considered represented best practice. I emphasise the fact that the Ministry of Defence said that in 1991, which is quite a long time agolong before the recent conflict. Following my predecessor's report on operations in the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s, and on operations three years later in Kosovo, the MOD was again promising improvements to its systems. Yet last year, my Committee was still concerned about asset tracking on the exercise in Oman. The House, speaking on behalf of British troops, who will doubtless be sent to war again, has the right to ask what is going on inside the MOD, and whether sufficient commitment is being shown on this issue.
Mr. Leigh: I am very grateful for that intervention, and I shall myself refer to figure 12, which is a key element of the report. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this issue. We did report on Operation Saif Sareea and we made a number of recommendations. We gave credit to the MOD, particularly with regard to the main battle tank. Of course, there was a lot of publicity about that issue at the time. It was meat and water to the tabloid press that our tanks could not perform properly. But the tabloid press do not necessarily go on about an asset-tracking system, because it is not in the forefront of political debate. Given that the MOD offered absolute assurances in respect of 199091 and the mid-1990s, my Committee and others have a right to ask why so little has been done. It is right to point out that our report should highlight that fact, and we should be prepared to return to this issue.
One or two others have mentioned the post-war part of the operation, but even so, perhaps not enough emphasis has been placed on it. It is clear that since the end of major fighting, our forces in southern Iraq have made a fantastic effort to improve security and the quality of life of its people. The NAO report clearly pays tribute to our troops and to the MOD, but it also points out that the armed forces could not be expected to meet the post-war challenge alone, and that, in the early stages, they were not properly supported by either Government Departments or coalition agencies. I am sure that shortly, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who is aware of what was going on, will be able to address these points with far more local knowledge than I ever could. However, it is clear that extra planning was needed, and that extra help should have been given to our armed forces. It was clear for some time that the war was likely, yet the Government failed to produce a co-ordinated plan in the aftermath of the conflict.
I have tried during my brief remarks to give credit where it is due, but also to do my duty and to point to deficiencies where they exist; indeed, that is the role of the NAO and the PAC. What is now important is to ensure that these lessons are not just commented on and are the subject of this important debate, but are learned and followed through. We will not only question the permanent secretary closely next week, I myself shall ask the Comptroller and Auditor GeneralI cannot order him; I can only ask himto consider returning to this subject in a year or two, so that we can test the MOD on what lessons have been learned. We owe nothing less to our troops.