Previous SectionIndexHome Page

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Gray: I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, who was on the same trip.

John Robertson: Perhaps I can call the hon. Gentleman a friend because, as he rightly suggests, we were in Basra together. Does he agree that the air-conditioned tents that had been promised very early on were also missing and that, in temperatures of 52° C, more of those tents were required, particularly at night, when it did not get much below 45°?

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman is, of course, quite right. Air conditioning may sound like a luxury, but in those conditions in the heat of the summer, it becomes a basic necessity, not only for sleeping and eating accommodation, which was sometimes absolutely oven-like, but for offices. I visited a number of logistics offices where computers and other equipment had seized up and was unable to operate simply because of the heat—leaving aside the personal convenience and comfort of the soldiers involved. We need to find ways to supply units that are air-conditioned more easily or, indeed, little air-conditioning units themselves, which can be easily fitted in ordinary tents. We saw that in some places, where air-conditioning equipment was supplied.

We must not forget about water-cooling systems. I was struck by the fact that a tank driver discovered that, by some curious means—my science is not good enough to explain—putting a bottle of water into a wet sock and driving it through the desert cools down the water. That was the only means that our soldiers had to make their water palatable. Perhaps we ought to find ways to supply water-cooling equipment in the future.

I also discovered more serious circumstances when I was out there, and the following story is known. The third echelon—in other words, the people who are right at the very back—were issued with two bullets each at the beginning of Telic 1. The argument might be that they were in the third echelon, right at the back, so they were in no danger and did not need bullets. That would

13 Jan 2004 : Column 720

have been a good argument for not issuing them with weapons either, but it is, quite frankly, absurd to issue a weapon with two bullets.

I believe that that situation was corrected after a couple of months, but during the peak of Telic 1, back on 18 March and thereafter, those soldiers were deployed to Kuwait—quite a long way back from the fighting—with only two bullets. That was silly in itself. One group of people in particular was badly affected: the fuel tanker drivers who were driving from Kuwait to the front line. They, too, had two bullets each, and it was necessary to have a whip-round around the unit and for the boys to chuck their two bullets into a hat so that the tanker drivers who were going up to the front line would have something like a magazine full of bullets. That is just absurd. We were not short of bullets; there was no reason to be quite so sparing with them, but I am told that that story is true. [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head and says that that it is not true, but I went to Iraq and that is what the soldiers told me. I cannot think why they would possibly make it up.

Mr. Ingram: I was listening to what the hon. Gentleman was saying and commenting to my Front-Bench colleagues. Those stories may well be anecdotal, but we need to get to the bottom of them. Conservative Members have raised similar issues, which we are investigating, but it is interesting that the report never picked up those stories. If there was an institutional failure, I should have thought it would have come to the fore.

Mr. Gray: I apologise for misinterpreting the shake of the Minister's head. He is right that there was not an institutional failure. The logistical exercise was extremely good overall, given that 46,000 troops found themselves in broadly speaking the right place with broadly speaking the right kit. However, that does not necessarily diminish the importance of highlighting such little instances—although there was probably a perfectly legitimate reason for the situation that I mentioned—to ensure that the same thing does not happen again.

It is right that all hon. Members are ready to congratulate all aspects of the armed forces on the superb job that they did during Telic 1 and continue to do during Telic 2—and perhaps Telic 3 and 4 and so on—and for us to say that it was a fine operation and that the logistics operation broadly speaking went extremely well. However, it is also entirely legitimate and sensible for Conservative Members to highlight several extremely worrying deficiencies—the problems with nuclear, biological and chemical kit and desert body armour are especially worrying. We do that not to have a pop at the Government, because I broadly congratulate them on what they did, but so that we can ensure that the same deficiencies do not arise in the future.

I hope that the Minister will not wind up the debate by using a party political self-defence mechanism and asking, "Why are you saying these awful things about us?" I would prefer him to come to the Dispatch Box to say, "I accept very much of what the Opposition have said. I believe that we did our best, but we got some of these things wrong. I thank the Opposition for calling

13 Jan 2004 : Column 721

this most interesting and useful debate today and make a commitment that I will act without any delay whatever to put the deficiencies right."

3.26 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): We have had an interesting and good debate in which we have heard six Back-Bench contributions, although I am sorry that only one Government Back Bencher was able to support his Front Bench. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) is what the British Army normally refers to as an area weapon, because he is as much a danger to his own side as the other. However, he spoke with great passion and I am sure that the Secretary of State was grateful to him.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) was generous, as usual, and spoke with great authority, balance and fairness from his experiences and as a former Secretary of State. I endorse his view, although the Secretary of State intervened to correct him when he said that the Secretary of State began the debate by giving the impression of complacency. I spoke this weekend to three officers in the armed forces, two of whom had been out in Iraq and one of whom served in the first Gulf war and was responsible for sending equipment and men to Iraq. They think that Ministers will react to the National Audit Office report by saying that measures to deal with lessons learned will be implemented, but fear that although a few will be implemented, many will not. My right hon. Friend hit the nail on the head by picking out the two themes of the debate as accountability and leadership.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, effectively gave the permanent secretary a warning order of the kind of questions that the Committee will ask. He tried to be fair and balanced while pointing out the need for improvements and the fact that we must learn lessons. It is a common theme among Conservative Members that however one looks at the NAO report, it documents the fact that a series of reports over the past decade by the NAO, the Public Accounts Committee and the Defence Committee have highlighted the same lessons again and again. Some measures have been implemented to address those, but box 12 in the NAO report makes grim reading because many have not been introduced for one reason or another.

If we have done nothing else by calling the debate, we have performed a duty by putting the Government on a warning order, not least because the Secretary of State stood at the Dispatch Box just before Christmas to announce his defence White Paper. He knows that the White Paper is challenging because no resources are attached to it. He talks about the need for radical changes to culture and organisation and for the introduction of new equipment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea and others were fair in asking, if we do not learn the lessons of past campaigns and implement them, what chance do the armed forces have of believing that the defence White Paper will deliver the operational and logistical systems that will be required to meet the new challenges that the Government have rightly faced up to?

13 Jan 2004 : Column 722

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) spoke with great authority both about his experience in the Gulf and about reservists. I think that I have captured the spirit of his remarks in saying that if we continue with an intensive call up of reservists for low-level operations, we will eventually run out of reservists. That major challenge for the Government was also raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), who made a thoughtful and balanced contribution about logistics and the need to prepare for all eventualities. He spoke with a great sensitivity about the impact of deaths on our troops, particularly in accidents. Naturally, we are all grateful that in recent conflicts the number of casualties among our own personnel has been limited because on the whole they have been well organised and trained. They have gone in quickly, and have been fortunate to work in a coalition and deal with an enemy who, on the whole, was not capable of a serious challenge. However, we should all accept that the public are demanding that casualty avoidance should be a new principle of war. That applies not just to casualties among our troops but, ironically, to casualties on the other side and among civilians. If we accept that that has become a public requirement, it puts enormous strain on the Ministry of Defence, Ministers and the defence budget in providing the basic protection that would have amazed my father's and grandfather's generation. Indeed, in a strange way, they would probably have regarded it as rather wimpish. However, those are the stakes for which we are now playing.

The missing 200,000 sets of body armour are no longer just a quartermaster's nightmare. When preparing to implement proposals in the defence White Paper, the Secretary of State must make certain that, as far as possible, such armour is issued not only to all our combat troops but to troops in the theatre of operations. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) rightly praised the role of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. He has experience of serving with the armed forces but, without wishing to be patronising, I must emphasise that the scheme has educated many Members on both sides of the House who lack such experience but can now speak with authority about the role of the armed forces.

The NAO report concluded, as many hon. Members have pointed out and as the Secretary of State has been at pains to reiterate, that Operation Telic was a success overall, not least, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) said, because of the hard work, dedication and adaptability of the Defence Logistics Organisation, military and civilian personnel, and members of the defence industry, as well as the great flexibility of our armed forces, which was highlighted by a number of hon. Members. However much the Secretary of State leans on that general conclusion—and I suspect that a number of his hon. Friends back him—Opposition Members believe that glaring deficiencies highlighted in the NAO report are repeat offences, and did not arise for the first time in Operation Telic. The Opposition's main purpose in calling this debate is, following the publication of his defence White Paper, to put him on a warning order and ensure that those lessons are implemented. We must not find ourselves debating them again in a year.

13 Jan 2004 : Column 723

The lessons are serious. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State says from a sedentary position that he is thinking of resigning. [Laughter.] [Hon. Members: "You say that."] We may have to wait two or three weeks to find out whether that is true. A number of glaring deficiencies were highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex and others, in particular the shortage of what can best be described as layered defence in terms of nuclear, biological and chemical protection.

Next Section

IndexHome Page