UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC 1458-i
House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
INTRODUCTORY EVIDENCE SESSION WITH
THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR DEFENCE
Tuesday 11 July 2006
RT HON DES BROWNE MP, BRIGADIER STEPHEN ANDREWS CBE
and MR DAVID GOULD CB
Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 106
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Defence Committee
on Tuesday 11 July 2006
Mr James Arbuthnot, in the Chair
Mr David S Borrow
Mr David Crausby
Mr David Hamilton
Mr Mike Hancock
Mr Dai Havard
Mr Adam Holloway
Mr Brian Jenkins
Mr Kevan Jones
Mr Mark Lancaster
Witnesses: Rt Hon Des Browne, a Member of Parliament, Secretary of State for Defence, Brigadier Stephen Andrews CBE, Director, Service Personnel Policy Strategy, and Mr David Gould CB, Deputy Chief Executive, Defence Procurement Agency, gave evidence.
Q1 Chairman: Secretary of State, you are most welcome to your first evidence session in front of the Defence Committee. Could I ask you to begin by introducing your colleagues, who I am sure we know already but nevertheless it would be helpful if you could for the record?
Des Browne: Thank you very much indeed, Chairman. Can I thank you for inviting me here today. Can I just say I am a strong believer in democratic accountability, and having been a member of select committees myself, as I am sure you are aware, I think they have a real role to play in holding the Executive to account. I have with me to my right Brigadier Stephen Andrews, who is the Director of Service Personnel Policy Strategy; and David Gould, who is the Deputy Chief Executive of the Defence Procurement Agency.
Q2 Chairman: Thank you very much. You have been Secretary of State for two months. Could you say very briefly please what your top three priorities are?
Des Browne: As you point out, I have been in this job for two months now, or ten weeks as I reminded myself this morning. I have made it my priority over those ten weeks to focus on the key strategic issues that defence is facing, and top of the list is of course Iraq and Afghanistan, and ensuring that our forces have the clear direction that they need and also the support, including force protection, that they need in both theatres, which I know is an issue that members of this Committee have taken a close interest in, and I am sure we will come on to that over the course of this session. There are also key issues in defence spending and procurement and of course the vital business of protecting the reputation of our Armed Forces. If that meets your requirement for three: our deployment in theatre; spending and procurement; and reputation.
Q3 Chairman: Thank you. How will we know whether you have succeeded?
Des Browne: I am absolutely certain that over the course of my term of office many people will make it their business to set exam questions for me and will also mark those papers and decide whether or not I have succeeded. I think that in terms of Iraq and Afghanistan our strategic approach to both is clear. There is in Iraq a developing opportunity with the standing up of the Government in Iraq for us to move to the position of transition to a democratic and, hopefully, peaceful Iraq. In Afghanistan I fear that our commitment may be significantly long term and it will be some time before we know whether we have a sustainable long-term position in Afghanistan, given the nature of that country. The test in relation to defence spending and procurement is whether we can achieve the ability to be able to deliver to our forces at the front-line the resources that they need and the support for those resources throughout the life of those resources, if they are platforms or more substantial capabilities, and also the ability to respond with the flexibility with which we will need to respond in this changing world and the terms of deployment of our expeditionary forces. Of course, the challenge in terms of defence spending will be to ensure that we have enough financial support to achieve those objectives.
Q4 Chairman: Those are not very hard-edged criteria, would you not agree, as to whether you have succeeded or not as Secretary of State?
Des Browne: Well, with respect Chairman, from where I am sitting ten weeks into this job I think they are very challenging and hard-edged criteria. I have of course inherited, as you are aware, within the structure of government a number of performance targets which were with the Department before I came and we are, of course, in the process of a Comprehensive Spending Review which will generate other measures of success or failure or challenge going forward, but from the perspective that I have at the moment, I think these are very challenging and hard-edged. I have to accept, however, Chairman, that it seems to be that in the changing world in which we live there is not going to come a time when we are going to be able to say that the challenges that we face now and the issues in defence are completed. We will be looking at them long term and I am looking, from where I am at the moment, as these being long-term challenges.
Chairman: Okay, thank you. You mentioned Iraq just now and moving on to that, Mark Lancaster?
Q5 Mr Lancaster: Secretary of State, you will be aware that the Committee went to Iraq last month and I want to first explore, if I can, the handover of control of security for the four provinces for which we are currently responsible. On 19 June you announced that some time in July the Muthanna Province will be handed over to Iraqi control. We are now in the middle of July; is that still on schedule?
Des Browne: As far as I understand it, the Iraqi Government intend to formally take over responsibility for Al Muthanna Province on 13 July.
Q6 Mr Lancaster: Right, so literally within the next two days, hopefully. When we were there we visited Ten Division, which is the Iraqi division in the south there, and met General Latif. One of his principal concerns was that he lacked any great logistical support or equipment. Whilst his soldiers were making rapid progress, he lacked that support. Given that he lacked that support, are you still confident that the Iraqi Armed Forces as well as the Police are in a position to take over control of that province?
Des Browne: I am satisfied that the process that was gone through to make the decision to commence the transition to local Iraqi forces in Al Muthanna was conducted properly and was exhaustive. I have to say that this is the beginning of the process. I recognise that while Ten Division of the Iraqi Army has made considerable progress, and quite a significant amount of it under our tutelage, because we have, we believe, trained now 90 per cent of that force to a very high standard - and can I just say slightly tangentially that I appreciate greatly the visits of your Committee both to Iraq and to Afghanistan and the very strong message that that gives to our forces on the ground of interest by parliamentarians across party to what they are doing and is very important to morale there - I, too, have visited Iraq now twice in the ten weeks that I have been the Secretary of State and met with General Latif to discuss these very issues. I recognise that there are still challenges in relation to logistics but I am satisfied that we are making progress with regard to them. During the process of handover we will need to satisfy ourselves with our coalition partners that the logistical support that is necessary for the Iraqi Army to be able to play the role, as it will, in Al Muthanna Province is available to them. Bear in mind, of course, that while we will remove our small force from Al Muthanna and others who are with us - the Japanese in particular - we will continue to overwatch and ensure that the division and that the forces get the support that they need.
Q7 Mr Lancaster: If I can move on to the other three provinces briefly, Chairman, if I may, the first two, Maysan and Dhi Qar; where are we with those provinces. If I were a cynic I would say that one of the considerations would be whether or not there were any provinces in the north that could also be handed over at the same time to balance them. Is that a factor?
Des Browne: I am not sure that, with respect Mr Lancaster, I fully understand the question of balance. You may want to supplement that question and perhaps you should do it now because I am not entirely sure ---
Q8 Mr Lancaster: From a political point of view, it would be advantageous to the Iraqi Government to have perhaps Kurdish provinces in the north handed over at the same time to give balance.
Des Browne: I think the Committee will be aware of this from those whom they have spoken to in Iraq. In my second visit to Iraq, I spent a considerable amount of time speaking to ministers in Iraq in the new Government, to establish from my own point of view how well this Government was working together to get some sense of whether it had a coherent programme moving forward, but that is another matter. The point I want to make is that in your meetings with Iraqi ministers and your observation of what they have said, you will see that there is an ambition in the Iraqi Government, particularly expressed by the Prime Minister, to see substantial progress in relation to transition across Iraq, having announced at the beginning of that, and understandably having announced at the beginning of that, that for the provinces that are most advanced they have a significant ambition to achieve transition in a substantial number of provinces within the next 12 months or thereabouts. I think that process as it evolves, with the Iraqi Government in the lead, will provide the level of balance that you think is politically important - and I agree with you that it will be politically important to see that this is not just happening in one part of Iraq because there are, arguably, 14 out of the 18 provinces that could be considered for inclusion in that process. As far as Maysan and Dhi Qar are concerned, it is our view, and I have expressed this view, that significant progress has been made in relation to both of those provinces. Dhi Qar, where the Italians were based, is, in my view, an early contender for inclusion in the process. I would be disappointed if the Iraqi Government, in consultation with the coalition, did not announce relatively soon that Dhi Qar was to be included. That is the same view as I take about Maysan but I recognise that Maysan has a particular geographical feature which requires some consideration, and that is the border with Iran. Of course, Maysan Province has always had that geographical feature, it has always been positioned where it is, and the history over centuries of that part of the world has meant that that border has not been recognised by a significant number of the people who live there because they believe that historically it was imposed on them by others who did not understand their culture. In terms of advance and in terms of suitability and inclusion for discussion in the process of transition, then my view is that Maysan Province ought to be included in those early discussions, too.
Q9 Mr Lancaster: Finally, Chairman, just to complete the picture, can we look at Basra. When we were there we saw - and you will be aware, Secretary of State - that they are using this traffic light system of red, amber and green to assess whether or not a province is ready for handover, and Basra was red so the least likely to be handed over, but we are told hopefully they were looking at a date in October or November, which is really quite soon considering it is currently at red. We are also assured that any decision will be conditions-based based on the effects on the ground. Is it just a coincidence that we seem to be aiming towards an October/November handover of Basra which happens to coincide with the next movement of our troops and perhaps an opportunity to downsize the number of troops? If I were a cynic I would say that apart from being conditions-based perhaps it is also politically-based and that there may be a connection to freeing up troops in Iraq to go elsewhere?
Des Browne: Obviously, Mr Lancaster, you are free to be as cynical or otherwise as you choose to be. You can search anything that I have said or my predecessor has said or indeed any minister has said in relation to this and you will not find anywhere that we have put a date on any of these transitions. I have expressed even in relation to Maysan and Dhi Qar in very general terms my view as to whether or not there should be a discussion about that. I am not in the business of putting dates on transition because we have been very clear from the outset - and this has been agreed with the Iraqi Government and with our allies there, the coalition forces - that the readiness or otherwise of a province for transition will be dependent upon conditions. It would probably be gratuitously boring of me to repeat those conditions because I am sure that every member of the Committee is familiar with the four of them. I see the Chairman nodding so I will resist the temptation that I am putting in front of myself to do that. It is undoubtedly the case that Basra of the four provinces for which we have responsibility in MND(SE) in terms of command is the most challenging. It is undoubtedly the case that there has been a significant amount of Shia on Shia violence there in the context of a power struggle in the political and economic situation, particularly in the period before the Government stood up. It is undoubtedly the case that although it is not nearly as bad as this sort of violence has proved to be in Baghdad, that there is also violence between the Shia and Sunni communities there. All of those issues, in my view, have to be addressed by a combination of a security plan which has been agreed almost in its totality with the central government, supported politically by the central government of Baghdad, reflecting hands-on leadership and direction by the government in Baghdad for the application and implementation of that security plan. It has partly been implemented in the sense that the Iraqi Army has been deployed to provide security in the streets of Basra, to some effect, although there continues to be violence, and I do not deny that and I suggest that that violence continues to create a challenge for us. Our ability to be able to deal with that and our ability to be able to reduce the threat to the point where their forces, including the Police (which needs significant reform) can deal with it, will be the beginning of us beginning to discuss the possibility of transition.
Mr Lancaster: Thank you.
Q10 Mr Holloway: Slightly following on from that, when we were there, I do not what others felt but I found it slightly surreal that three years after the invasion we were still conducting patrols without an Iraqi face. I know that was down to the particular local political circumstances but what are we doing now in order to maintain the tolerance of the Iraqi civilian population and not look like an army of occupation? To what extent are we now wandering around with Iraqis?
Des Browne: As I have already said to Mr Holloway, we have in the context of the Basra security plan, although it is not properly completely formed and not properly completely supported in my view by the central government yet (although there is no lack of will to support it, there are details that have to be worked out) a significant deployment on the ground of the Iraqi Army, and we are supporting that Army in its patrolling on the ground in Basra in the hope that we can instil and build a level of security to create an opportunity for us to deal with the elements in the Police that need to be dealt with. Of course, that requires a degree of political coverage. These steps are now being taken but it is a transitional process.
Q11 Mr Holloway: Do all our patrols have an Iraqi face now?
Des Browne: I am not in a position to answer that question specifically but I will write to the Committee with the specific answer to that. I have an impression but I would like to just check with the commanders on the ground what the specific answer is to that very specific question.
Q12 Chairman: Could you do so because I think we have had the impression that that has improved quite significantly in the last three weeks or so, but it would be helpful if you would write to the Committee.
Des Browne: Chairman, can I say I know it has improved significantly and I know that substantially the answer is yes. So the simple answer to the question is yes but I will establish whether or not it is absolute.
Chairman: Thank you. Dai Havard?
Q13 Mr Havard: Can I ask you about Provincial Reconstruction Teams. I have made three visits to Iraq in the last two years and the one thing that has been concerning not just me but a lot of other people is the mantra which we are all chanting which is that there is no military solution and that you also have to have reconstruction and politics put together with it in order to achieve anything. Over a period of time we have now got elected processes and Iraqis apparently in control of certain things. What were to me dysfunctional processes like the CPA and the Project Contract Office have gone away. The latest idea to try and knit these things together is Provincial Reconstruction Teams. I was pleased to see some sort of intent - and the essential idea has come from our experience in Afghanistan presumably - but what is the process? Is it a way of us simply being able to better co-ordinate our responses in relation to that or is it a way of driving forward what ought to be the Iraqi national development and redevelopment plans?
Des Browne: The Provincial Reconstruction Teams are primarily a focus for bringing together the assets that we have in Basra, which is what you are asking me about, not only from the military, from the MoD, but also from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and from the Department for International Development, to focus our collective attention on reconstruction. I think the Committee will understand and certainly will understand clearly from their recent visit to Afghanistan that there is a correlation between the ability to be able to deliver security and to be able to deliver reconstruction. Those reconstruction teams also work in conjunction with the development arms of the Iraqi Government in order to deliver improvement and change. Can I just say that there are a number of very specific projects being led by the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Basra that have made significant progress.
Q14 Chairman: Could you give an example?
Des Browne: There are two projects in particular, one in relation to water and sewerage and the other in relation to electricity that have been long, involved projects that are within months of delivery. The difficulty is that they will not show until all of the work is done but all of the work is almost complete and they will be able to show significant progress. The second problem is that what work has been done, for example reconstruction work in relation to the electricity infrastructure, has been significant and improving work, but the security situation in parts of Iraq is such that we cannot advertise that that work has been done because we have done it with Iraqi partners and we recognise that there is a danger if we advertise that work has been done with the coalition forces it might identify potential targets for other people, and we have to be very careful in terms of the personal security of Iraqis who work with us. That is a limiting factor in terms of being able to celebrate and brand improvements that have taken place but they are taking place inexorably.
Q15 Mr Havard: Can I just follow that through for a second. That is part of the problem, is it not? One of the questions I was going to ask you was about finance. As I understand it, it is a way of drawing on a whole raft of different types of finances from all the organisations to which you have alluded, and maybe others later, but the whole business about who you involve in the process and the fact these are seen to be Iraqi plants at the end of the day and that the Iraqis are benefitting, not contractors from somewhere else, is a real problem, is it not, because you want to show to Iraqis that it is they who are doing it and they who have had successes, and yet we seem to be pretending that it is going to be some separate agency that has come in and delivered for them rather than with them or that they have done it?
Des Browne: I do not think there is any sense of pretence about this at all. The one factor which will meet all of our needs in terms of Basra is to be able to see the improvements taking place and to be able to allow the local governments at provincial level or alternatively the central government to be able to take credit for that.
Q16 Mr Havard: They should be claiming the victory.
Des Browne: With respect, Mr Havard, it is not a question of victory; it is a question of improving the situation and showing to the people of Basra and the south east of Iraq, and indeed other parts of Iraq, that democratically elected government and good governance will deliver opportunities for them in terms of not only security but developmental opportunities and economic advance. It is that virtuous circle of security providing development providing security providing development that will eventually embed the democracy which is already well established in Iraq.
Q17 Mr Havard: The PRT will be a driver for that? That is its intention?
Des Browne: The PRT is making a significant contribution to that, yes.
Chairman: We have a lot of ground to cover. I want to move on to Afghanistan.
Q18 Mr Hancock: I want to ask one small question. It is about the assets once they are provided, the electricity, sewerage and water, which are vitally important. Are you satisfied that once they are commissioned and in place that there is an adequate force available to protect those assets or will that be a job for the coalition?
Des Browne: I would say to you, Mr Hancock, that since the Iraqi Government stood up there has been a significant reduction in attacks upon the electricity infrastructure. We have argued from here that there was a relationship between the ability of the Government to be able to take control of its own country and the level of insurgency, and that includes attacks on infrastructure. The early indications are that - and it is maybe too early to say whether that will be sustained - there is progress in that direction.
Chairman: Moving on to Afghanistan, David Hamilton?
Q19 Mr Hamilton: Minister, yesterday you announced a substantial increase in the number of troops going into Afghanistan. Will that force us to reduce our commitments in Iraq, Bosnia or Kosovo?
Des Browne: I think the answer to that is that we will take decisions in relation to the level of our deployment in all of those theatres in relation to the circumstances of the theatres themselves, and they will not influence each other.
Q20 Mr Hamilton: The security situation in Helmand Province has altered and is quite tenuous. Has that altered the proposal of the timetable for ISAF to look at the remaining issues in eastern Afghanistan?
Des Browne: The transfer of authority in relation to stage three of ISAF is due on or about the end of this month, as far as I recollect, and then it is our ambition that we will move quickly to stage four because the logic of this deployment of ISAF forces south and east is that the best opportunities may be created when stage four takes place and then we can, as people will understand and would have been obvious to you in Afghanistan, bring under the single control of ISAF quite significant assets which the Americans have available, in particular air support, and you would have seen the significant presence of air support that the Americans have available at Kandahar Airfield. The conditions that will allow that are a matter for discussion in NATO, and in particular involving the United States, and those discussions continue. It is our ambition to be able to see an early move to stage four, for the very obvious reasons that I have just expressed.
Q21 Mr Hamilton: They takeover is on 31 July so that is going to be rather difficult. Minister, could I express a view that, like most Members of Parliament, we have a good feeling in our constituencies for what is happening throughout the area. I support Afghanistan. I believe that what we are doing there is good work and I am pleased to see that the troops actually believe the same. However, I am rather concerned that more and more people are not distinguishing between Afghanistan and Iraq, ie in one country it is an army of occupation - that is a point of view - and in the other country we are there to try and support. It does worry me that the view being expressed by I think a substantial number of the public is that they see no difference. How do you overcome that?
Des Browne: The fact that people play from one theatre into another their views, whether they be prejudiced views or whether they be views that they hold for reasons of analysis, and the transfer of views that relate to one theatre into another is a degree of prejudice, and I do not use that in a pejorative sense. That does concern me. Repeatedly in the opportunities that I have had to put across an explanation of what we are doing in Afghanistan I have faced down just those allegations on a number of occasions, but I have long learned that I cannot control what other people say or do or indeed write. Those people who are opposed to the Government's position in Afghanistan in that sense get a vote as well as everybody else and they exercise that vote and will deploy the resources that they want in order to undermine the Government's position. My position is unequivocally clear, and I have made it plain in the House on a number of occasions and outside of the House, and that is Afghanistan is a noble cause, supported by the United Nations, supported by NATO, supported by a significant number of other countries (almost the whole of the developed world), supported by the Afghan Government themselves, and supported by the Afghan people. The only way that I can overcome the prejudice that you identify in other people is to continue to explain as best I can why we are there and what we are doing and hope that people begin to understand it. I have, I have to say, had a sense over the last weeks that some of these arguments are beginning to get through, certainly in the media, and that there has been a balanced reporting of Afghanistan, explaining not just the challenges, which are manifest and everybody knows are there (and it does not make the place any less dangerous or any less difficult to do because it is a noble cause) but I think there is a degree of support for what we are doing in Afghanistan that would be reflected in public opinion.
Chairman: Almost every single colleague here has caught my eye and I will be as fair as I can be and I will get round to everybody but I will start with Mark Lancaster.
Q22 Mr Lancaster: I want to probe the nature of the reinforcement. I mentioned it briefly in the Chamber but when you look at the troops that you have announced yesterday, certainly from an infantry point of view, they are all composite companies. We are talking about a company being formed from a whole Commando brigade. We are talking about a company being formed taken from the Second Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. We are having to cobble together companies in order to try and reinforce Afghanistan. If the current spike of activity continues beyond the duration they are expecting of a couple of months, is this not a clear sign of the absolute overstretch of our troops? What are you going to do next? Cobble together more companies? Is there a single formed infantry company going or are they all composite companies?
Des Browne: I am not in a position to answer that question in detail. It may well be that Brigadier Andrews is able to answer that question specifically.
Brigadier Andrews: I am sorry, I am not able to.
Mr Lancaster: Can you really not find one single formed company to go to Afghanistan at the moment?
Chairman: This is not meant to be critical of Mr Lancaster but I think he asked it yesterday.
Mr Lancaster: I did not get an answer.
Chairman: It would be helpful if you could possibly write to us with an answer to the question which has now been asked twice.
Q23 Mr Lancaster: And no answer.
Des Browne: Chairman, I appreciate that and to the extent I am unable answer that question, then clearly that is a criticism of me and I should have anticipated that very specific question. I will provide the information. I suspect that the question is designed in that form to draw attention to a broader issue than just that specific point.
Q24 Chairman: That is fair.
Des Browne: If I can address the larger issue, which is the issue of whether I am anticipating or, indeed, expecting that we will need to do just the sort of thing that Mr Lancaster suggested that I would need to do next, I say to him that a significant amount of thought and preparation went into that announcement yesterday. As I said in the House, the process of review started some time ago, indeed, it started around about May, and it went through the normal processes of being "staffed up", as they say in the Ministry of Defence, until the point when it came to me, and I am satisfied that we have now made a decision that will give us the full strength and the configuration that we need for the future in Afghanistan and so I am not anticipating or expecting doing the sort of thing that Mr Lancaster has suggested. With regard to the question of stretch, I do not accept that we are overstretched. The CDS made it perfectly plain yesterday that our forces are stretched in relation to certain key aspects. There is a degree of stretch but we are able to carry out what we need to do. That is all set against, of course, the context that, in my view, we do not have any alternative but to do what we are doing in Afghanistan, for all of the reasons that I have listed on a number of occasions in the House and do not wish to repeat.
Q25 Chairman: Secretary of State, did you say you do not accept that there is a degree of overstretch or that you do accept that there is?
Des Browne: I do not accept that we are overstretched; I accept that there is stretch.
Q26 Chairman: Even though you said yesterday that most of our forces would be outside the harmony guidelines?
Des Browne: Yes. I am praying in aid the words of the chief of the defence staff, who, when asked these very questions yesterday repeatedly on the media, said, yes, our forces were stretched but they were not overstretched.
Q27 Mr Hancock: I would like to ask two specific questions. I think the word that you used was people being "prejudiced" against the Government's actions on behalf of this country in Afghanistan. I think "prejudice" is the wrong word. I think most people in this country rightly thought the fighting in Afghanistan was over and believed that to be the case four or five years ago and are a little surprised by what has happened. So, I do not think "prejudice" is the right word, I think the British people are rightly surprised at what has happened in Afghanistan. My main question is this: once again, it would appear that the UK are providing a disproportional amount of fighting soldiers to those of our NATO allies, excluding the Americans, and I am a little surprised, to say the least, because I thought when we entered into this, other than the command structure, which was going to be wholly UK, the fighting elements or the other troops involved would be fairly spread across other NATO countries. I await with great interest, unless you can tell us today, announcements in other foreign capitals of NATO countries of their increased numbers of deployed troops to Afghanistan who will actually do some fighting. I think the British people are entitled to a straight answer about where our NATO allies are on this very important issue of troops who will do fighting in Helmand province, the same as British soldiers are expected to do.
Des Browne: In relation to the preamble to your question, I used the word "prejudice" in the context of the question that Mr Hamilton asked in a very specific way and I made it very clear that I was using it in a very specific way, but it would not advance anybody's understanding of anything for us to debate that at any great length, so I will resist the temptation to do so. ISAF is a NATO force. It is true that we have accepted responsibility with the Danes and, to a lesser degree, the Estonians, who make a very small contribution to what we are doing but, nonetheless, are presently for Helmand province. We have accepted the responsibility to generate the force that is necessary to do the task that we have taken on, and I look to all of our other NATO allies to generate the force that is necessary to carry out the responsibilities that they have taken on. I accept that that needs to be a continuing discussion and I continue to have those discussions both with the NATO commander, with the General Secretary of NATO and with my fellow ministers of defence in NATO countries to encourage them to do more where they have the capability to do it.
Q28 Mr Hancock: Has the British Government specifically requested the NATO Council to increase the number of troops deployed from other NATO countries to Helmand province?
Des Browne: No.
Q29 Mr Hancock: Why not?
Des Browne: Because I do not accept that it is necessary for us to specifically request other countries to provide forces for Helmand province. I think we need to look at what we are doing in Afghanistan across the country, and other countries, including many of our NATO allies, are making a significant contribution, proportionate in many cases to their ability to be able to do it in other parts of Afghanistan, but we continue to argue for additional deployments where we believe there is the appropriate capacity for that to happen.
Q30 Chairman: Do you believe that the share of the load in Afghanistan taken by the British is fair?
Des Browne: I believe that the share of the load taken by the British in Afghanistan is appropriate to the level of responsibility that we took on. We took on the responsibility to make a contribution in the context of the weight of NATO forces and Helmand, but the overall force that NATO have deployed in Afghanistan covers more than just that part of Southern Afghanistan.
Q31 Mr Hancock: Very few of the countries have troops on the ground who are actually willing to go in and engage the enemy, whether that be the Taliban or anybody else, and disproportionately the UK are bearing the brunt of that, with the exception of the American forces that are deployed there, but they are not there as part of NATO, they are there as part of the US Armed Forces. The American soldiers in Afghanistan are not under NATO command?
Des Browne: The forces that are deployed to the south in terms of ISAF and are under the commander of ISAF are not deployed there with any caveats that prevent them doing what you say.
Q32 Mr Jenkins: Secretary of State, I wonder if you would outline something for me, either today or in a note. I am not quite sure with regard to Afghanistan the exact position we are in and why we are there. I have got two stories here. First of all, when we went in we went in with "scenario A" and we are now meeting, albeit I think for legitimate reasons, more resistance, so we need extra troops to safeguard and secure "scenario A". The alternative story is that we went in to do "scenario A", it went so well we moved on to "scenario B" and now we require the extra troops to ensure that we are going to do and A and B at the same time because we are now pushing back the Taliban and gaining greater ground at a faster rate than anticipated. Could you clarify exactly what it is, which scenario is the right one, and also can you tell us what the difference is between A and B, so that I can have it clarified in my own mind?
Des Browne: I think what we cannot do, Mr Jenkins, is separate the need for security from the necessity of rebuilding and reconstruction. The two of these go together in the context of Southern Afghanistan. We need to create security in order to rebuild, and it is the division of these two necessary component elements of what we are doing into separate processes or parts of the process, saying that they are mutually contradictory that is at the root of this apparent confusion about what we are doing in Afghanistan. I cannot make it any plainer than to say that the original configuration of the force, including Apache helicopters, Attack helicopters, including artillery, including some of our most able fighting units should have made it clear to anybody and, indeed, was explained as being configured and also to generate the security that would allow reconstruction to take place. These are not two contradictory elements of what we are doing and to suggest that we went in to do reconstruction and now we are doing something else is fundamentally to misunderstand what I believe was explained quite clearly by my predecessor at the point of deployment. Chairman, if you would allow me just a few sentences on this. I will not go into the detail that I could, but what has happened is that when we deployed, in terms of delivering security, the commanders on the ground saw an opportunity to go further and to go faster than we had originally planned. That has been successful. The measure of success, of course, is contradicted by the fact that we have lost brave soldiers in doing that, apparently, superficially, but that is not the only determinate of whether this is successful. We have in fact, in doing what we have done, created a degree of security in very key and important parts of Northern Helmand, and in doing that the commanders made a decision to reinforce the best way of government and to support the Government. That has generated a level of challenge in terms of the resource that we have had, that has now been fed back to us and we have reinforced and increased deployment in order to hold that success, to sustain it for the length of time that it needs to be sustained but also to allow it to continue to do what was at the core of our plan in the first place, which was in Central Helmand.
Q33 Mr Borrow: I just wanted to touch on the issue of confusion over what the mission is, because some of the commentators here in recent weeks have talked about confusion about what we are trying to do in Afghanistan and, certainly when we were there last week, I thought that the service men and women had complete clarity on what the mission was. I wonder, Minister, whether you want to comment on the fact that, if our service men and women in Afghanistan had absolute clarity on their role and their mission, is it not strange that so many commentators here seem to be so confused?
Des Browne: With respect, Mr Borrow, I do not think it is strange because there are people who, for whatever reason (and I will avoid the word "prejudice" again) consider it in their interest to be able to suggest that there is confusion about this and create the confusion and then consult that confusion that they have created to say that there is confusion. There has been, in my view, clarity about what we are doing. What we are doing in Afghanistan is necessarily complex because it is a very complex environment and it is an environment which has been created after three decades of conflict and, indeed, a substantial part of that outright warfare. It is a very complex environment, but there is a clarity about what we are doing, and it does not surprise me, frankly, that the message that the members of the Committee got back from our forces on the ground had the clarity that I got from them when I visited Afghanistan. Indeed, when I go to Iraq I distinctly remember conversations with 18 year old squaddies who had a far clearer understanding of what they were doing than many people back here thought. In any event, be that as it may, they have the clarity, their commanders understand what they are doing, their commanders understand the complexity of the situation and they understand what they need to do to be able to achieve their objective. There is the danger that this analysis begins to sound complacent, but it is not complacent in any sense at all. The dangers that are involved in this are significant, the level of risk that our troops take on when they do this are significant, and I understand that, and that is why I take very seriously my responsibility to ensure that they have the resource to carry it out, but, frankly, and I repeat what I have now said on a number of occasions, it does not help their safety for people to be playing into that environment the fact that there is confusion. I want to make this point. It was instructive yesterday, in my view, that there was played on our media an interview with a Taliban commander, and the timing of that interview must have, probably did, predate the actual announcement in Parliament of the deployment of extra resource, and anybody who wants to understand the danger of seeding confusion when no confusion exists should listen to that interview and hear that man, who is capable of some of the worst brutality you can imagine, saying, quite specifically, "British Forces say they are here for reconstruction purposes. They are not. They are here for different purposes altogether. They are here to fight a war", and feeding that information back into the communities of Southern Helmand puts our troops at risk. The Taliban have a very, very impressive information operation and every single word that is said here in our media and in our Parliament is taken advantage of by them and, in my view, it is careless with the lives our soldiers to seed confusion where no confusion exists.
Q34 Mr Borrow: Secretary of State, that is the point. The people that I speak to in Helmand and, indeed, some of your own commanders and diplomats, take the view that we are very far behind in terms of the information war that the opinion is being dominated by the Taliban with the villages, and that also extends to reconstruction. According to your people, actually only a tiny amount of reconstruction has been delivered so far. You talk about having an environment of security to do reconstruction, but what is to stop you, as the Dutch are doing, using large groups of locals and branding that reconstruction British, because we have only got a limited window to maintain the goodwill of the Afghan villages?
Des Browne: I think the simple answer, Mr Holloway, is that there is nothing to stop us taking advantage of opportunities that present to us to use local labour, whether it be organised by us or organised by other companies or organisations in the communities or, indeed, the communities themselves to do just that work. Part of the announcement I made yesterday was to employ 320 engineers from 28 Regiment Royal Engineers to start those sorts of projects in the environment that we are creating.
Q35 Mr Jones: Like Mr Borrow, I was quite impressed by the clarity of what the mission is in terms of people we met right from General Richards downwards. Also, talking to commanders on the ground, they were quite clear that they anticipated the action which is taking place now, the difficulties that would take place in terms of taking, I think, as one described it, the fight into the Taliban's back yard and also arguing that it was important to do that rather than sitting in bases and waiting for them to come to you; but I have to say, Secretary of State, have we not got to also agree and accept that your predecessor, in terms of the way he spun this out in terms of the spin machine he obviously uses on a daily basis even in his new department, actually led the public to believe that this was going to be a little bit like the North, it was going to be a cakewalk, there was not going to be any real action and, in fact, we were going to be welcomed with open arms in Helmand. Are we not actually responding really in the press to that map that he set out and the confusion that he set out that you are now able to demonstrate quite ably what is actually going on?
Des Browne: I do not accept that my predecessor, John Reid, did anything other than explain how difficult this was going to be, and I have repeatedly gone back to the extensive statement and question and answer session that was conducted in the context of that statement on 26 January to reassure myself that he did do all of what I am saying and explain how difficult this was going to be when he announced the deployment. I think what has happened is that you have used a particular phrase which is now being taken out of context and, in fact, consistently misreported. In the context of questions that were put to him about what the purpose was in going into Afghanistan, to use the phrase which, as I say, has now been taken out of that context, he was reassuring, I thought, the question, and others, that it was not our intention to go there to hunt down the Taliban.
Q36 Mr Jones: But it was; I am sorry. General Richards and others explained to us last week that part of the plan, which is taking place now in terms of Operation Mountain Thrust, was always to go after the Taliban; so this idea that somehow we have walked into this by mistake, unless commanders have told us something different and it is wrong, that was always part of the plan?
Des Browne: That is quite a complex question actually and when I give you the answer I think the Committee will realise. Operation Mountain Thrust is an aspect of Operation Enduring Freedom, which is not under ISAF control and is not part of what we are doing with the Helmand taskforce.
Mr Jones: I am sorry; that is not what was explained to us last week.
Mr Havard: Yes, it was. You have misunderstood it.
Q37 Chairman: Let us allow the Secretary of state to answer.
Des Browne: There appears to be a significant disadvantage to me, Chairman. I was not with the Committee last week in order to be able to settle this competition as to what was actually said, but let me just explain to the Committee what my position is and what my understanding is. I think that may be helpful and may advance the discussion and debate. Operation Enduring Freedom is the American‑led operation to hunt down the Taliban, to hunt down the terrorists. It is undoubtedly the case that in the northern part of Helmand, in the mountains in particular, that operation is taking place. As I understand the situation, the coincidence of that operation taking place and other factors created an opportunity for us in terms of our deployment to move into that area to create some level of security. That is what happened, but we were not part of Operation Mountain Thrust in doing that. I understand that that creates a degree of complexity because the same, or near, space can be occupied by two operations doing different things. The intention and the deployment of our troops into Helmand was to generate security with a view to development and to continue with the reconstruction focus. Clearly, that meant that we had to be ready to fight in certain circumstances, particularly since it was expected. It had been anticipated in the planning that people, including the Taliban, would want to stop us trying to do that. That is what has happened. However, because of a whole series of factors, some of which are relating to what I have just said, some of which are relating to opportunities to reinforce the local governments and were operational decisions by the commanders, we have got ourselves into the position where we are further ahead and more geographically spread than we had planned to be in the first place, and that is the necessity for the additional resources.
Chairman: I do not want to get into a debate about what we were or were not told last week, so if you could carry on with the Secretary of State.
Q38 Mr Jones: The important point, which was made to us on a number of occasions, I accept the difference between the two operations, but it was made quite clear that the operation right from the beginning was not to sit in bases and wait for the Taliban to come to us, we were actually going to go and take the fight to them. In terms of how that was spun out originally, that was not how it was done, the idea that this was going to be a reconstruction phase. I am not saying that I disagree with the strategy, I think it is a correct one, frankly, to actually take the fight to them if you are going to bring in the reconstruction, but it is quite clear from the commanders who have briefed us that that always was part of the strategy, which actually was a correct one.
Des Browne: I think this is a discussion about whether my predecessor explained this properly or not. I am absolutely certain that he did explain it properly. I am also certain that those people who did not want to hear it explained in that way took advantage of one phrase that you have used and have themselves spun that phrase into a position where it is now routinely misrepresented in order to support a particular argument. I do not think repetition of it here would help, and I am not going to repeat it, but that is what happened and I do not accept the fundamental premise of your argument, with respect, Mr Jones, that John Reid did not explain what was happening properly.
Chairman: I want to move on to the very important position of the Afghan National Army, Dai Havard.
Q39 Mr Havard: Can I say one thing that I brought away from this visit was that there had been a change, and the change was the visit of the DFID minister, in part, the fact that the quick improvement projects were going to go ahead and the fact that you have got 320 engineers going to support that activity is absolutely crucial, it seems to me, in the whole business of the reconstruction, but the other element in that to support it is the Afghan National Army. We saw the new training camp being built just to the side of the bastion, and all of that sort of stuff. Unlike the Americans embedded trainers, we have these mentors, liaison OMLETs, or whatever they are called. We met some of those, and I notice in your statement yesterday, and I would like you to explain this a bit further, if you would, you said, "We are going to step up our efforts in this area and we are therefore deploying additional staff in Helmand to do that, because these Afghan National Army people are being trained as they are deployed." Naturally the Governor wants people on the ground, and that is happening, but I wonder whether you could say something about that, because the other element that we also saw was the new officer/cadet training establishment, which was not there when I went there last November, and they have done an amazing amount of work in the period since January to get it up and going, but it is a question of how you resource these things. What I could see was resources being taken from operational activity in order to support a training activity, and so I would like to know a little bit more about how you are going to resource that element which seems to be absolutely crucial in any plan that you have got about security involved in the Afghan National Army?
Des Browne: I think that you are absolutely right to recognise the development of the Afghan National Army and the improvement of their capability to be able to take over responsibility for security increasingly as being very important. That development clearly is part of our exit strategy from Afghanistan. When I visited Afghanistan I was able to see on the ground the success of the OMLETs, the success of those people whom we had embedded with Afghan National Army units. I was struck by the fact that there were fewer of them than I had expected, and I took advantage of an early meeting with Defence Minister Wardak to quite specifically challenge him to provide additional resource. He also recognised how beneficial it had been to his troops to be working very closely with ours. Indeed, we have troops in Afghanistan who are with these kandaks, as they call them, actually living with them, fighting with them and sharing everything with them, which has been remarkably successful; and the reports back that I was given, and I am sure you were given, was that these were very brave people who were very good soldiers and they were developing significantly under our tutelage. I am now told that additional Afghan troops are being sent to Helmand and we are increasing our ability to be able to provide that level of support to them. I have to say also, I discussed with the Minister the possibility that by deployment to the Regional Army Headquarters and other places we would be able to interact with these troops before their deployment so that we could encourage them to come into Helmand, which for some of them is a challenge because of what they hear about Helmand province, and that is what we are seeking to do with the additional resource that I have identified.
Q40 Mr Havard: So it is an additional resource. They are not being drawn as in out of 800 people you have got to find 100 of them to do that?
Des Browne: I noticed yesterday that I was deploying additional staff both to Helmand and to the Regional Army Headquarters to do this.
Q41 Mr Havard: If you can give us some information on that it would be helpful.
Des Browne: I will endeavour to give you specific information on that.
Chairman: One final question on this before we move on to vehicles, Adam Holloway.
Q42 Mr Holloway: Your commanders and diplomats again complained that it is pretty unhelpful when they are trying to generate goodwill in a province to find American units or other departments and agencies operating. For example, last week there was a bombing of a compound in a village that the British were trying to win over where a number of civilians were killed. Is this helpful, and what can you do to stop the Americans doing their own thing in what should be our back yard?
Des Browne: I think the answer to that is that the commanders on the ground and through the command control structures need to work as closely together so that their activities are consistent and supportive of each other. I am not in a position to express any views specifically in relation to the conversation that you had, and I do not know the detail of that particular concern, but it is undoubtedly the case that we are looking forward to being able to move to stage four for the very reason that we will then have that synergy and that control through NATO of all of Afghanistan.
Q43 Mr Holloway: So you are saying that in stage four the Americans will not still reserve the right to go themselves for high value targets straight out of CENTCOM and not through you?
Des Browne: No, I am not saying that; I am suggesting that that will improve our ability to be able to do that.
Chairman: Vehicles - Mike Hancock.
Q44 Mr Hancock: Secretary of State, you promised an urgent review of the use of Snatch Land Rovers. What are the terms of reference that you set out for that review? When is it expected to be completed and when will you be prepared to announce the findings? As a supplementary to that, in response to a point put to you on June 12 you said, "It is open to commanders to deploy vehicles that have heavier protection than the Snatch Land Rover. Other vehicles are available to them; there is a choice." Do you still stand by that statement that in the deployments we have where our troops are in harm's way, seriously, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, that commanders really do have a serious choice here?
Des Browne: Yes, I do stand by the fact that commanders have a choice. Commanders have a choice of whether they travel on the ground at all in the first place in certain circumstances and in some cases the commanders' choice will be to send out forces walking in relation to the particular task that they have charged them with, and these decisions need to be made by commander. I said that because the decision as to how to deploy troops, whether in a particular vehicle, whether by air or whether in walking is a matter of assessment by the commanders against circumstances where force protection in terms of travel is only part the nature of the vehicle and quite substantially about tactics, about intelligence and about related issues, which are within the knowledge of the commanders to make those decisions. Turning to the particular review that I have requested, that is ongoing. I have accepted in the House and repeat today that the development of improvised explosive devices has generated a set of circumstances where, in my view, we need to look at whether there is a need for something between, in Iraq, Snatch Land Rovers as a form of land transport and the Warrior, and I have accepted in principle that there is a need to look at that to see if we can identify resources that can be procured and deployed in the timescale that would provide that level of protection while we wait for other armoured options becoming available such as, for Afghanistan, the Vector, which will enter service in 2007; and the fact, of course, that we have already upgraded the Armor and the Warrior and the Saxon and the CVRT and that we are upgrading FE430 vehicles. That essentially is what I have asked our officials to do, to review the availability of such resource to be procured and an appropriate timescale to do that, and I am awaiting a response to that imminently. I am not in a position to say, just now, when I will be able to report that, but I will keep the Committee and indeed the House of Commons updated on any developments.
Q45 Chairman: You say imminently?
Des Browne: Yes.
Mr Hancock: I think it is better that we do not pursue that in the interests of what you said earlier.
Chairman: Kevan Jones.
Q46 Mr Jones: The next issue, Secretary of State, is in terms of FRES. What progress is being made on FRES and when will the first variant of FRES actually enter service?
Mr Gould: We cannot give a date for FRES entering service because we have not actually started the main procurement programme for FRES, and one of the things that we have learnt over the years to our cost is not to make predictions when we do not actually understand why we are making the predictions. FRES, however, in those timescales will not contribute to the immediate problem that we face in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the things that the Secretary of State has talked about are the things that can be done quickly to overcome that. The FRES programme is currently undergoing a series of technology-demonstrator programmes to try and work out where the correct trade-off lies between time and capability and cost and what can be done with technology that is relatively mature now but not completely mature; so it cannot contribute to the immediate problem but it could contribute to solving problems in four or five years' time. But until we really understand those technology trade-offs it would be foolish to give a firm date for the first variants entering into service. We are now looking at the trade-offs really between time and the maturation of technology, which can give an answer to this problem of how do you get the level of protection that you currently get through a very heavy vehicle, like Warrior, into something which is easier to deploy and lighter, and that is a very hard task to do. But we do hope to come forward with proposals for our approvals process pretty soon now.
Q47 Mr Jones: Mr Gould, I am surprised you have actually got to the level you have in the MoD for the honesty of your reply because every time I have actually asked this question I have had various dates, and I finally wheedled out a date from General Jackson. Everyone who has come before this Committee has said it was 2009 and General Jackson then said 2010 and now you are saying exactly what we all thought a long, long time ago, that there was never going to be any in-service date. So can I thank you very much for your honesty? I am not sure I can say it will do you much good in the MoD. Can I ask in terms of what you said - and I accept that this is a vehicle which is through a concept phase in actually trying to find out FRES is going to be - where does that leave us with the question of replacing some of the very old kit that we have, things like Saxon and others which, if you cannot give us a date, are going to be coming to the end of their life possibly before FRES is going to come into being. I have to say that getting FRES right is important, but also making sure of old equipment, which is old technology and vulnerable for our men and women in the Armed Forces, is also an added pressure on you as well.
Mr Gould: The combination of things that the Secretary of State has already referred to can help with that. Some old equipment actually performs extremely well and the upgrading that is going on of the FE430 at the moment will contribute directly to improving the position in Iraq certainly, and quite quickly. There are other things that are in the inventory which can be deployed and built on; there is the Viking vehicle that the Royal Marines use, which is a very capable vehicle - not again in the class of a Warrior or something like that, but it is still very capable. We have the Vector programme, which the Secretary of State referred to, which will actually provide not a great deal more in terms of protection than Snatch but much more mobility and load carrying, so very, very suitable for the kind of terrain we meet in Iraq. But I come back to my point that there is no perfect answer to FRES. There is no single solution to FRES, in my view - there will not just be one vehicle, there will be, hopefully, a fairly short family of vehicles - but a number of things to meet the capability, and one has to make the trade-off between time and capability because putting immature technology into something does not actually help the problem, and going for a quick solution which then does not prevent the long-term problem is not an answer either. So I do not want to have another Saxon on my hands, is the short answer to that.
Q48 Mr Jones: I accept that, but clearly this is going to keep MoD civil servants in work for many years and obviously that is going to be welcomed by the people down at Abbey Wood, but this is not going to help our men and women who we are asking to go into very dangerous situations with old kit. I accept what you say about some old kit being serviceable, but is it not the case - because this has been said before this Committee before - that we may have to buy a stop-gap to fill in some of this capability gap, because clearly in terms of Snatch Land Rovers the Secretary of State says it needs reviewing, with which I agree, but also as this kit becomes older we are going to have a capability gap because if we are still sat here in 2025 and our friends in Abbey Wood are still looking at their naval about what FRES should be then that is not going to help people going around in very, very old vehicles.
Mr Gould: If I may say so, Mr Jones, our friends in Abbey Wood are more anxious than anybody to get the answer to this right and get it done as quickly as can sensibly be done. But we do need to get the answer right. In the meantime there are a range of things that can be done; there are a range of vehicles coming into the Army, there is the Panther vehicle coming into the Army, hopefully starting out fairly soon next year. There is the range of vehicles that the Secretary of State referred to and there are a range of upgrades that can be done to the current in-service vehicles. Do we have to have an interim? Yes, we do have to look at the trade-off between time and capability. If the answer is that we need to do something early then we have to be realistic about the capability increment that the early answer will give you, but we need to understand and be prepared to make that trade-off.
Q49 Mr Jones: Are things like the Panther a capability which would be deployable in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Mr Gould: It is a commander liaison vehicle; it is mobility on the battlefield. It will not answer all the problems we referred to earlier and it is probably not the answer to the particular patrol vehicle problem - it certainly is not the answer to that in the short-term; it is not the role of the vehicle to do that.
Chairman: We will now move off Afghanistan, Iraq and vehicles on to the Trident issue. David Crausby.
Q50 Mr Crausby: On the question of replacing Trident the Prime Minister told the House that there would be a decision by the end of the year, and yet your department under the previous Secretary of State declined to engage with our first inquiry into the Strategic Nuclear Deterrent on the basis that he had nothing more to say at that time. Considering that the decision will be made by the end of the year, has that moved on? Is there anything more to say? And can you give us a clearer idea of exactly where the decision-making process is?
Des Browne: Can I just first of all welcome the Committee's recent report about the future of the Strategic Nuclear Deterrent? I think it has made a contribution to the debate in informing people of the significant number of the issues and I understand that the Committee will be moving on to look at other aspects of this, and I look forward to working with the Committee and offering cooperation to enable the Committee to do that as part of the process of generating a level of knowledge in the public to enable the debate to take place. Can I just say one point - and I want to make this point at the outset - that it does seem to me that the constant commentary that every time a minister mentions this issue that they are closing down debate is unhelpful. There needs to be, in my view, a public debate on this issue. Your report will assess that and that public debate needs to take place in as open and transparent a way as possible. But it certainly cannot take place if the only people who are not allowed to express an opinion are government ministers, and if a government minister seeks to express, as the Chancellor did, his personal view, then it is unhelpful to the encouragement of debate for commentators to say, "In that event there is not going to be any debate." It is going to be a very odd debate in public if the government are the only people who are not allowed a view. Secondly, can I say to you that while commending you on the report I actually regret the criticisms that are in the report of my predecessor and of the Department's engagement with the Committee for the following reasons, and I will just explain them to you very quickly? The timing of the inquiry, of course, was a matter entirely for the Committee and that was exactly within the province of the Committee to decide when they were going to do that, but they did that at a stage when the analysis that officials were carrying out to inform government and to further inform the debate was at a very immature stage. That was the fact, and in fact none of that work of analysis had come to ministers in the Department, and it would have been very strange if the government had permitted those officials to come before the Committee to give evidence and be questioned when in fact the analysis had not come to ministers. But I have, in preparation for this appearance before your Committee, read the evidence of John Reid before your Committee on November 25 and it did not seem to me that he was reluctant to offer detailed thoughts in response to the questions that were asked of him then on this issue, and was quite expansive in what he said to the Committee, and I think it bears re-reading if the Committee thinks that John Reid was not prepared to engage and discuss to the extent that he was able to on the issues. He also set out the background, as I understand it, in a memorandum that was published in January. So to the extent that the Department, the government was able to engage with your inquiry it did so and, consequently, with a mild hint of regret I regret that that was not recognised in the report; but it does not devalue the importance of the report or its ability to be able to identify a number of issues. The position is still that we are aiming for the end of this year. By the way, in relation to the report I have asked our officials to prepare for me a draft response in time to be able to publish that before the recess.
Q51 Chairman: That is very helpful.
Des Browne: And I hope that we will be able to do that. I have to say that the draft which I have seen is in an advanced stage and I am confident we will be able to publish our response to your report before the recess - not jut for the Committee but for others who take a keen interest in these matters. It remains the case that the government has not yet taken a decision either in principle or in detail on whether to replace Trident. Decisions will be made by the end of this year, after which the government will publish a White Paper. I know and I clearly understand the Committee's desire and wish would have been for that paper to have been Green, but in my view there is a responsibility on the government to take a collective view in terms of this debate and to put that view into the public domain, and it would be entirely appropriate to do that in a White Paper. In the meantime, further work by officials is underway to assess the risks, the threats, the options and the costs to inform that decision which will be put into the public domain to inform the debate in the context of a White Paper. I hope that answers the questions that you have asked, Mr Crausby.
Q52 Mr Crausby: I think it is important that we move on and I think it is welcome that you tell us that you intend to cooperate with future inquiries. If you have some concerns about our comments in the report you should have seen the draft report initially! We did tone down to some extent and I thought in the end that it was a reasonably balanced comment in the circumstances; but I accept that we should move on, particularly with the second stage of the report which we consider should deal with manufacturing and skills, and work which must clearly have been done by now at both Aldermaston and Barrow as to the prospects of the capability of being able to produce what is necessary and in the protection of the skills base. So can we be assured that you will cooperate particularly on the question of skills and manufacturing?
Des Browne: What I have said to the Committee I do not demur from. To the extent that we are able to facilitate the Committee in these further tasks that it has set itself then you will find that the MoD will be cooperative. For example, I understand that the Committee may wish to visit some of these establishments and, as far as I am concerned, you will be free to do so and we will facilitate those visits.
Chairman: Thank you.
Q53 Mr Crausby: Can I say that I think it is absolutely right that Cabinet Ministers should express a view - I think that is plainly correct - and the Chancellor, in my opinion, is perfectly entitled to his. I could not personally see what he said that was particularly new. It is clear that it is Labour Party policy to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent but I think that what the public really want to get engaged in is the shape and the size of that deterrent. That is the debate that most of us want to involve in and I think that this Committee can do an important job in that, and that is why it seems to me that a Green Paper would have been so much better than a White Paper if we are going to have a real debate rather than a fait accompli.
Des Browne: I have made my position clear in relation to this and that is entirely consistent with the government's position and I do not think there will be anybody in this Committee or anybody listening to my evidence that will have understood the position to be otherwise. It is the government's intention to deal with the issues of principle and the nature of the consequences of that and any further development in the one document, and that would need to be a White Paper.
Q54 Mr Hamilton: Could I ask a question in relation to that? At the very beginning you indicated that the public debate needs to take place in openness and transparency. I assume from that that you would support a vote at the end of this open and transparent debate?
Des Browne: I do not necessarily think that the one follows the other, I have to say. I think from where I am at the moment, with the preliminary work in relation to the aspects of this very important decision ongoing and the analysis not yet complete, while sitting here I could speculate - but that would be speculation - as to the nature of the decisions that would need to be made. I think we need to wait to see what is the nature of those decisions, to see whether there is the necessity of a vote in Parliament. I consistently say, as do my colleagues in government, that there needs to be an open debate, and it seems to me that that debate is already going on, and it is entirely healthy that it should be going on and a significant amount of the information that needs to be known to the public in terms of the issues of principle is already known to the public, but I will endeavour to ensure that everybody who needs to take part in that debate gets the information that I can provide to them to allow them to do so, to make these very important decisions.
Q55 Chairman: But Secretary of State, do you really think that a decision of such importance and size could be taken without a vote in the House of Commons?
Des Browne: My position, Mr Chairman, will just be exactly the same as it was to Mr Hamilton at this stage; I am not yet in a position to be able to identify what those decisions will be, and until I know the nature of those decisions then I will not express any opinion as to whether or not there will need to be a vote in Parliament.
Chairman: There are some questions I would like to ask you about the Defence Industrial Strategy, but before I get on to that I would like to go on to the issue of the Joint Strike Fighter and technology transfer. David Borrow.
Q56 Mr Borrow: Minister, the Committee went to the United States in May and one of the issues that we discussed was the issue of technology transfer in relation to the JSF and we were reassured by the Deputy US Defence Secretary that discussions were at an advanced stage and he was optimistic that there would be agreement that would be satisfactory both to the UK and to the US. Where are we up to now in relation to those discussions?
Des Browne: I just say that the new aircraft carriers and the aircraft that we will deploy will represent a significant step in relation to our ability to be able to deliver a force package to the specific requirements of each mission from land and from sea, and consequently the Joint Strike Fighter is an important element of that. Much has been made of the technology transfer issue. We in the UK require operational sovereignty of the aircraft and we have made that clear to the United States, that we will not be able to buy the Joint Strike Fighter without the necessary transfer of technology and the information to give, as I say, operational sovereignty. Whenever we source equipment it is crucial that we are able to operate and maintain that equipment and the transfer of this information is important to that. We are presently continuing to work closely with the United States. As you have advised us, your own Committee here, what progress was being made when you visited the United States we are presently optimistic that these discussions will be successful, but I am not in a position here publicly to put a time limit on when they will be successful, but we are confident that they will be successful.
Q57 Mr Borrow: Certainly Lord Drayson has been very robust in his discussions with the Committee on this issue and the one thing we have not really been able to explore is that if we are not able to reach satisfactory agreement in line with the comments of both yourself and Lord Drayson in the past, is there a plan B and, if so, what is the plan B?
Des Browne: I just say to the Committee with some confidence that we are not anticipating we will not be able to resolve this. We have made it clear to the United States, who are of course our ally, that we will not be able to buy these fighters without the necessary transfer of technology and information to give us the operational sovereignty that we need. It may be that Mr Gould would want to add to that?
Mr Gould: No, we made it quite clear to the US both at a high level and at a very detailed level what we mean by operational sovereignty, and this is not industrial sovereignty, this is our ability to operate the aircraft safely for our pilots and aircrew; to maintain, repair and upgrade and to integrate into the UK operating environment some of the centres of communications so that the enhancements you have to do for each operational deployment and each mission plan can be done, as we would for other aircraft in the Royal Air Force and in the Royal Navy, and we are very encouraged both at the general level - the Prime Minister and the US President, the US President made it quite clear he wants this to happen - and that the confidential talks that have been going on between ourselves between the DoD and the Joint Project Office are encouraging. The Secretary of State said that we cannot give a date right now but we will need to resolve this before we move to the next stage of the programme.
Q58 Mr Borrow: Is there agreement between the MoD and the main company in the UK involved in this project on the technologies that need to be transferred?
Mr Gould: To fulfil the operational sovereignty role?
Q59 Mr Borrow: Yes.
Mr Gould: Yes, at a detailed level there is that agreement.
Q60 Mr Borrow: That would also assume that even if you do not feel able to put into the public arena plan B that there is a plan B of some sort because otherwise we would have no leverage in this discussion with the US?
Mr Gould: You would expect us to have thought about that but what we do not want to be is diverted from what looks like a very encouraging position with the US at the moment.
Chairman: That is the most interesting reply we have had on that issue for a very long time.
Q61 Mr Jones: You have just told the Committee that you do not put a timescale on this but I have to say that when we were in the United States the then Secretary of State was quite clear that July was the deadline to meet. When we met the Senate on Armed Forces Committee they were quite clear, and in their report they even put July - it is in their reports - so they put a timescale on these discussions. When are we going to get to a point where we say that if this drags on for another six months, for example, we do not buy JSF?
Mr Gould: The next stage, the early commitment to production investment for the programme, is scheduled to take place around the end of this year. The first development aircraft is planned to fly in between now and that time so that the programme is progressing. So we will have to know before the end of this year that we actually have the agreement in place which we need to proceed to the next stage.
Q62 Mr Jones: I accept all that you are saying, but it was quite clearly July, and they have set this idea of getting this by July. Lord Drayson, with credit to him, in terms of the evidence he gave to the Senate Armed Forces Committee, the hard ball approach he took is starting to work, so are we just going to let this drift on or are we going to start saying to them, like Lord Drayson, I think, did, "Come on, you have to make a decision on this or we are going to take that crucial decision" because I think that had an effect both in the Senate in terms of galvanising support for our case but also I think in terms of understanding the position.
Mr Gould: We are not letting it drift at all. In terms of highlighting the intention it is quite clear. Discussions that Lord Drayson had with the Senate have actually moved this along, but what we need to be absolutely clear about, before we get to the production stage of this programme, is that we have in great detail an understanding with the US that is well understood both at the US DoD and UK government level, and also at the industrial level between BAE Systems and other companies and Lockheed Martin, who are the prime contractor.
Q63 Mr Jones: Yes, but are we going to start rattling their cage, for example, on 1 August to say, "Why have you not come up with this?" because I can suggest that if you do not do that it will drift?
Mr Gould: We are working in great detail with them and we are moving in the right direction and we are moving at the right pace and it is very encouraging. The crucial point - and I come back to it - is that we must have that in place before a production investment decision is taken, otherwise we cannot proceed with the programme, and that is a pretty good way of rattling their cage, actually.
Q64 Chairman: Mr Gould, you looked rather alarmed when I described your reply as "interesting"; I do apologise! Moving on to the Defence Industrial Strategy: Secretary of State, are you happy that the DIS is being implemented to the planned timetable?
Des Browne: Yes, I am. I think that the value of the Defence Industrial Strategy is of course that it gives clarity to industry and our defence requirements and sets out the industrial capacity of the framework for the development and the industrial capacity that the United Kingdom will need to go forward. But it was not just a policy document, it was intended to be a framework for action and that action is going forward. We have responsibilities in the MoD; the industry has responsibilities and we are working together to meet the challenges that we both face, which are real and urgent. In the words of Paul Drayson quoting someone else, you want to take advantage of the sunshine in order to repair the roof. We are actually facing these together. I think that the Committee will have noticed that the MoD specifically has made tangible progress in improving its acquisition performance over recent years and enabling acquisition change. The review that was published on 3 July is a significant step building and a success, making a large number of recommendations for change. It will not be simple and easy to take forward and it is challenging and we have set ourselves challenging timescales for that, but at the heart of it it recommends the merging of the Defence Procurement Agency and the Defence Logistics Organisation to create a unified organisation to procure and support our equipment, and these changes of course will affect people and they are subject to consultation with trade unions, as we have done at every stage. The industry is also changing and I think at this stage, since David Gould specifically has been taking this process forward with BAE Systems and others across the industrial sector, I will invite him to update the Committee on what progress has been made and what progress is being made.
Q65 Chairman: I wonder if in doing so, Mr Gould, you could perhaps say how many jobs are likely to be lost and what timescale is likely to apply to that merger?
Mr Gould: Are you referring specifically to the DPA/DLO merger?
Q66 Chairman: Yes.
Mr Gould: To start with, the total number of jobs in both organisations combined is already previously planned to drop by - I do not have the precise figure with me - several thousand, and that was planned before the specific merger that has just been referred to was actually announced. Quite a number of those jobs come from enabling services like personnel and the technical enabling services, which actually are already joint in the two organisations, but certainly the merging of some IPTs will also contribute to that. So I cannot give you precise figures that are planned but it does run to over 10,000 at the moment. The timescale to do the merger, in terms of the unified management of both organisations, the aim is to have that up and running by 1 April 2007. That is a pretty aggressive timescale for the unified management, but because some of these things have been shared previously we have a bit of a head start over that. That does not mean that everything stops on 1 April 2007; that will not be a stable organisation. There will be more work to do to get the full benefit out of the merger as we go through. The kind of thing that I am talking about is a big emphasis in the Defence Industrial Strategy on through-life capability management. So not just managing equivalent capability as new programmes and completed programmes that need to be supported through life, but actually a continuous cycle of improvement as you go through. Rather as we were discussing with fighting vehicles earlier on, it is not just a single project that gives you the answer, it is the combination of projects that actually leads to the incremental improvement in capability over a time, and that will require us to think differently about how programmes are managed and how programme teams and project teams are put together and what their objectives are. So, 1 April 2007 for a unified top structure but a lot of continuing work thereafter to actually get the full benefit out of this.
Q67 Chairman: What sort of organisation will it be? Will it be an agency?
Mr Gould: I think the jury is out on that. Agency status, one can take or leave it. I think what is really important, what I have learnt from having the Defence Procurement as an agency, is the importance of setting very good but very clear targets for people to perform to, because they are big motivating factors. So whatever happens on agency status I would not want to lose the impetus of those very clear targets. But that will be challenging because describing targets for through-life continuous capability improvement in addition to specific project targets is quite a hard thing to do, but we are still doing work on that and we will come up with some answers.
Chairman: Moving on to the Comprehensive Spending Review, Brian Jenkins.
Q68 Mr Jenkins: Secretary of State, the MoD's efficiency programme requires you to do additional savings of £2.8 billion and yet this year we have the official reports and annual accounts and we managed to trim down the projected claimed saving from £400 million to £280 million. Even at that level it is going to take ten years to get this £2.8 billion, but what concerned me is the fact that in the report there always seems to be an overstatement of saving and potential savings. How do you feel about the information you have given out, as to its accuracy, and do you feel that this will be reflecting the true savings rather than these potential savings?
Des Browne: Can I just say - and I come to this job in this area at least with the advantage of having been, for a year, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury who had overall responsibility in government for the efficiency programme - that the MoD's commitment to the level of 2.5% efficiency saving in each year of the SRO4 period, you are right, aggregates to £2.8 billion of efficiencies by the end of 2007/08. I reported to the Committee that we have already made savings in relation to our overall efficiency programme of £1.3 billion, so we are on track to deliver, and we plan to do this, publishing our accounts and our annual report before recess this year so that the up to date information will be available to the Committee and to others in relation to this. You asked, Mr Jenkins, about an aspect of that efficiency programme, which is our ability to be able to validate certain savings, and the savings that were reported in last year's accounts were subject to audit. Consequently, it was not surprising that when they were audited - and in particular when the process of the claims were audited by the Director of Internal Audit and then those conclusions were shared in a cooperative fashion with the NAO - there was a change in that figure. I just say to the Committee that the process of validating and quantifying efficiency savings is a complex process. Across government we have accepted the scale of challenge as the NAO actually recorded, which has not been matched by any government ever in terms of efficiency savings, and we have been developing in partnership with the NAO, with others and with the Treasury methods of validating the savings that have improved significantly over the last 12 to 24 months. As a consequence of our experience in relation to un-audited figures, but also as a consequence of our desire to be able to publish the report and our annual accounts within the timescale that we have set for ourselves, when we publish this set of accounts we will show a range - rather than a specific figure - until the auditing process comes down on to a specific figure. But can I just say to you that we are more confident of our ability to be able to publish those figures now because of the learning process that has been taking place, and how to properly validate them internally.
Q69 Mr Jenkins: Let me move on to one set of figures that are not in dispute. The top 20 defence programmes are £2.7 billion above the approved cost at the end of March. The in-year variation for 2004-05 was a decrease of some £699 million, and we thought that was a very good move in the right direction until you realise that it is actually created by a reduction in the amount of equipment ordered. Why are we cutting back the amount of equipment ordered? Do we need it? Is the operation finished, or are we in the business of once again overrunning costs, costs out of control and our requirements being cut to the money available rather than the requirements being met?
Des Browne: I may have to defer to Mr Gould in relation to the specific figure that you referred to, but I would just say to you that in the Department we continually review our procurement and we continually obviously have to review our ability to procure in the context of our budget - there is no question about that, we have to continue to do that and that is a process that any department will have to go through. Mr Gould might be able to deal with the specific figure that you have identified.
Mr Gould: I recognise the £670 million which comes from the MPR 2005 report. The reality is that a lot of these equipment programmes take a long time; there is a difference in view of priorities. None of these changes take place without the agreement of the customer. We are enjoined by several reviews of procurement and the Public Accounts Committee to trade performance costs and time. Personally, I would much prefer most of that trading to take place before the major timescales and costs are actually announced, as I was referring to earlier, but if they need to take place later in the programme we should not shy from doing so.
Q70 Mr Jenkins: The length of programme is a major concern and you have the world's record for actually starting programmes which, by the time they get to the delivery point, are probably redundant, and it is the grandchildren who will drive these machines rather than the people they are intended for, because some lengths of the projects are an embarrassment. We brought in this smart procurement; we brought in this gateway procedure. The gateway procedure at the moment is being used on the aircraft carriers.
Mr Gould: Yes, it has.
Mr Jenkins: Possibly very, very successfully. We are going through the detail to the degree and 'nth, but it means that when we actually get past the gateway the project should be completed on time and on budget. Am I being naïve or - as someone who is not cynical in any way, shape or form, taking everything on trust - is someone using the gateway to delay the programme because we have the affordability problem with our major procurements?
Chairman: I will bring Mike Hancock in on this question as well.
Q71 Mr Hancock: Let the Minister answer that one first, Chairman.
Des Browne: I think Mr Gould was gearing himself up to answer this specific question.
Mr Gould: That specific point, is someone using the gateway as an excuse for delaying the programme? Absolutely not. I am sure that you know that the gateway process, the OGC process, actually reports back to the project director, the project manager; it is a method of assuring the project director with outside scrutiny that the way the project is progressing is correct. The objective, absolutely, similar to FRES, is to make sure that we understand the risks in the construction, do we have the design that we can construct and do we understand the costs of that construction programme and do we understand the schedules in that construction programme so that we can then monitor the subsequent progress of the programme with assurance? The process of gateway and the other assurance techniques that we are using are precisely to make sure that when we make the proposition to the MoD's investment board and indeed to the Treasury and others, we actually understand the proposition that we are making and we are confident that we can manage it within the risk profile that is set out. Projects are difficult, things do go wrong inside projects; we need to have understood the consequence of those things going wrong and therefore set the right parameters at the start of the project and not do it prematurely, which is what we have tended to do in the past and jumped to decisions too early, and then you get something that looks like a cost overrun or a delay and, quite correctly, we are upbraided for doing that. Delaying this thing will not make it get any cheaper; you need to get the time right and not stretch it out - stretching it out makes it more expensive. So there is no incentive to do that.
Mr Hancock: Does that not also then lead to the
probability that pressure on the budget becomes so great that delaying it is
one thing, but delaying it with a motive for eventually planning to abandon one
of these projects another? Are there
any discussions going on about options for either downgrading the spec on any
of the current major procurement issues that you are dealing with or to abandon
any of them in particular?
Q73 Mr Hancock: Yes, generally. On major projects. Tell us the biggest projects you are dealing with, everything from the aircraft carriers through to a strategic tanker and beyond. Are there serious discussions going on, which would possibly lead someone to believe that there was a chance that they will not happen?
Mr Gould: There are no serious discussions going on in any of the ones that you have mentioned.
Q74 Mr Hancock: I have only mentioned two.
Mr Gould: That is not very many. There is a bi-annual process now of going through the equipment plan and judging the programme against affordability and we are coming up to a Comprehensive Spending Review, and of course people have to look at options, but that is not an answer to the point on the carrier.
Q75 Mr Hancock: No, it is a very specific issue here, is it not? We are being told that the capability of our Armed Forces depends very much on the way in which they are able to be supported in various ways.
Mr Gould: Yes.
Q76 Mr Hancock: This is a serious point about the issue of whether the Treasury themselves recognise the very difficult points of stress that the Ministry of Defence are under. Are you, as Secretary of State, as somebody who comes from that background, confident that the Treasury itself is appreciative of the very real difficulties that you face and that you are not going to be placed under unnecessary pressure because of Treasury activity to either downgrade the requirements of our Armed Forces or, indeed, to cut some of the major programmes that have been up for consideration?
Des Browne: That question is directed to me. Some of the detailed questions I have had to defer to Mr Gould, and I am sure that Committee members will understand that.
Q77 Mr Hancock: Yes, I understand.
Des Browne: Can I just say fundamentally, in the time that I was in the Treasury the relationship between the Treasury and the MoD, in terms of mutual understanding and building the skills within the Treasury team to be able to understand the very issues that you identify, moved significantly. It is candidly very easy, and I think sometimes lazy politics, to caricature the Treasury's relationship with departments in the way in which people do. I know this from my own experience as a Minister that the way in which the Treasury operates is to seek to understand, to make joint and informed decisions in the way in which you described that they ought to be done. So I am confident that that resource, which was there when I was a Treasury minister, is there and improving, and I have had meetings with colleagues in the Treasury at which those officials who have that resource have been there displaying those very skills, and I am sure that independently the appropriate officials from the MoD would say that that relationship is developing and improving, and it is that relationship that will be at the heart of the decisions that will need to be made in the context of the Comprehensive Spending Review, and we are only in the foothills of that process at the moment. I have not yet in the Department, as Secretary of State, in the ten weeks I have been there had the opportunity to review the equipment plan and the way in which Mr Gould identifies that periodically it needs to be done. I am open to coming back to the Committee to answer these questions myself when I have had the opportunity to do that work, if that is of assistance to the Committee. I recognise that there are restrictions on my ability to be able to answer detailed questions but that is not my job in any event. We will not cover all of the waterfront that members want to cover in this meeting and I am open to coming back, perhaps after the recess, when I have had an opportunity to do these additional things in relation to my job.
Q78 Mr Hancock: Can I take you back one quick minute to the waterfront area in Portsmouth, who will welcome the arrival of the new aircraft carriers, and I am specifically asking the question, maybe to Mr Gould: you are not aware of anything that is now going to further delay the already identified milestones that have been presented to this Committee on the provision of those two carriers?
Mr Gould: No, I am not.
Des Browne: Could I just say to Mr Hancock that I am looking forward to chairing my first Admiralty Board there this afternoon and that, I have no doubt, will significantly improve my ability at some time in the not too distant future to be able to engage with the Committee in relation to these detailed issues!
Chairman: Can we move on to the issue of women in the Armed Forces? Adam Holloway.
Q79 Mr Holloway: Brigadier, we notice that there are no female officers above one star. What are the factors that influence this?
Brigadier Andrews: The factors that influence selection for promotion are ability, which is measured in an annual appraisal, and employability based across a wide career profile. Of course, for the most senior officers we look for those who have demonstrated their ability and their potential in a wide range of appointments, both in command and on the staff.
Q80 Mr Jenkins: If I could ask one question that has been puzzling me for a while: how many either one or two star officers went to a state secondary school?
Des Browne: Mr Jenkins, you will not be surprised to know that I asked this question myself.
Q81 Mr Jenkins: Did you get an answer?
Des Browne: I am not able to provide an answer because that statistical evidence is not collected, so the best you are going to get from anybody who tries to answer that would be, in my view, an unhelpful conglomeration of anecdotes. The statistics are not kept. Educational background is actually an irrelevance to the Armed Forces. What we are interested in in the context of selection and promotion is to take account of educational achievements and qualifications, not what school a person went to. That is entirely as it should be unless there is evidence to suggest that people are being disadvantaged because of their educational background, and I have to say that as I interact increasingly with the Armed Forces I do not myself see any sign of that. I understand that that is doing exactly what I am counselling people not to do, which is basing conclusions on snapshot experiences of anecdotes; but the fact of the matter is that that information is not kept. In relation to women, if I can just expand, I think there are - and I asked for this information which we do keep in order to inform the responses to this sort of question if it came up - trends in relation to the Armed Forces that are very encouraging. There are increasing percentages - they are starting off with small numbers - of women moving up the chain of command. And can I just say to Members of this Committee that I come from a background ministerially and politically where I will encourage and support this trend with every effort that I can because I think it is crucially important that "people opportunities" is not just a phrase but that it has a reality on the ground. In terms of promotion, in every walk of life the most important thing to ensure is that the pool from which people are chosen for promotion is expanded and is represented, not just of women, not just of people from different educational backgrounds but of people of diverse ethnic backgrounds as well, and we will do everything we can to build on the success that we have been achieving, I believe, in all of these areas. Then we have to ensure that the promotion process is genuinely objective and selects people by their ability from that pool, and that it is a genuine meritocracy and is not affected by extraneous factors. I would just say to you, Mr Jenkins - and I have not had the opportunity to satisfy myself of this - that to the extent in ten weeks I can get a sense of this, and knowing what I do know about this area of public policy, I do not get any sense that there is a disadvantage to having had a particular educational background in the Armed Forces.
Mr Jenkins: Secretary of State, it was only a short question and I always get worried when people give me very, very long answers to a short question. If you have difficulty I suggest that you carry out a random survey; just go round the CVs of the officers and pull out a random number - and it will give you them in confidence - and look at the individuals and see where they come from and their background. Are you keeping a policy of advancement, inclusion without knowing some facts from where you are starting? You just said to me that you do not know where the facts come from, it is too big a job to look at it, but someone should know where they come from to be able to prove and say, hand on heart, that they come from a wide range, that it is on ability and it is not on background.
Q82 Chairman: Secretary of State, there is a suggestion for you.
Des Browne: I will take that suggestion away and mull it over, and since I am offering to come back in the not too distant future I can be cross-examined or examined on how I responded to that suggestion then.
Q83 Mr Jones: Secretary of State, I am quite disappointed with your answer because clearly you have been there for ten weeks and it appears that you have gone native very quickly! The point is relevant because - and I am not suggesting this is the case - it could be suggested that an old boys' public schoolboys' network promotes to certain things and is holding women back. So I am surprised that you do not collect evidence of where people come from and I do not think that it is beyond the wit of the MoD to pull that information together. The other thing I would be interested to know - and I am disappointed with the Brigadier's answer about women - is what is actually being done to encourage women to break through that glass ceiling into two and three star? It is not just a matter about people's abilities, it is trying to engage and encourage those women who have ability to break through. If you look at any examples of how it has been done just go to an industry where there has been real and positive work being done to encourage women to get into senior management positions, and I do not think that the MoD is any different or the Armed Forces are any different from industry in that respect.
Des Browne: I accept your challenge and I would be disappointed if the impression that I left with this Committee is that I had ditched all of the principles that I believe in in relation to equality in ten weeks in the MoD, and I do not believe that I have for a minute. I think women and educational qualifications and where they are obtained are two separate issues.
Q84 Mr Jones: I do not think they are.
Des Browne: They are in my view separate issues, and I do not want anybody left with the impression that we do not collect the detailed information in relation to women - there is very good clear evidence why we should do that. The evidence suggests that women are progressing through the officer ranks in greater numbers than before and that there has been a notable increase in the proportion of women at officer rank below one star, and I will come back to that in a moment. A significant percentage of junior officers are female, 40% captains, for example, 18% of lieutenants and below, and for most senior officers the female representation, although relatively small, has increased significantly. The proportion of colonels and equivalent has doubled in the 15-year period from 1990 from 1.6% to 3.2% and for lieutenant colonels it has tripled from 1.4% to 4.1%. As the Brigadier explained, moving into the stage that you have, as a Committee, set as the glass ceiling is a combination of a number of factors, one of which is life of service, and given that women are only genuinely an integral part of the Armed Forces and separate from women services for a comparatively short period of time then that length of service has not been able to be acquired by women, and the test is - and this is the genuine test in my view - as to whether the pool from which those people will be drawn is genuinely representative of the women who are joining the forces in increasing numbers. If that is right and we are sustaining that progression then there is no reason for anybody at this point to believe that that will be stopped at any point. But it is my responsibility, as the Secretary of State, to ensure that the processes for selection work to make sure that that does not happen, and I will do that because that is part of the whole process of equality that brought me into politics in the first place. As far as educational qualifications and where they are obtained are concerned, it is entirely appropriate, in my view, that the Forces should be blind to where those qualifications are obtained. Mr Jenkins has suggested to me a piece of work which he says may reveal a degree of prejudice against people who have come from state schools. I do not believe from my observations that that exists.
Q85 Mr Jones: We do not know.
Des Browne: I will take away his suggestion and consider it and when I come back before the Committee the next time we can address that subject in some more detail.
Q86 Mr Hamilton: I actually think it is correct to say that since the time the change of policy about women came about, it may be a bit early to say how that has come through the system. However, I find it difficult for you to make a judgment on educational ability or what school a person came from when you do not carry those facts with you. How can you make that judgment? Nobody can make that judgment unless they gather those facts together. I would not take it to the Armed Forces, I would take it to the Army specifically and look at the Army because I think that is where the problem lies. It may be a misconception but how do we know if we do not have the facts and figures?
Des Browne: Neither of us knows.
Q87 Mr Hamilton: That is the point.
Des Browne: I qualified my answer in the way in which I did very carefully to let the Committee know where I thought the restrictions on it were. In the context of the exchanges we were having, Mr Jenkins has made a suggestion to me and I will take it away and consider it. I do not think I can say fairer than that.
Chairman: May I recommend a policy of an A list, Secretary of State. I just throw that out. Mark Lancaster on overstretch.
Q88 Mr Lancaster: Overstretch, or perhaps as the Secretary of State would prefer to call it, "stretch". Perhaps, Chairman, because of the very nature of the question I am about to ask, I know the Committee are aware, I ought to restate that I have an interest as a serving officer in the Territorial Army in the Royal Engineers as a bomb disposal officer, so a pinch trade. How have our harmony guidelines been breached with the latest appointments and which trades are probably most affected by it?
Des Browne: Can I defer to the Brigadier to give that specific information?
Brigadier Andrews: The harmony guidelines in general across the Armed Forces are still holding, but you are quite right to say they are breached in certain areas. There are certain specialisations where there are acute difficulties. In the Royal Navy, there are significant shortfalls amongst certain specialisations in the submarine service. In the Army, there are as you know shortfalls in the infantry and intelligence operators. In the Royal Air Force, weapons system operators, air crew, linguists and a number of ground trades are particular shortage areas.
Q89 Mr Lancaster: How are we trying to address these shortages? Is there a direct connection between shortages in key trades and the mobilisation of reserve forces?
Brigadier Andrews: There is a number of measures which we can do to reduce manning pressure; the pressure in these particular areas. Of course we can look at the requirement, we can review the establishment and the requirement on the ground to make sure that we are indeed employing the right number of people, and if there are too many of course that is a measure to reduce the pressure. We can look at rank-ranging posts, perhaps a post which was originally designated for a captain might be undertaken by a major or perhaps a lieutenant; we could put a rank-range there. You have quite rightly pointed out sometimes we can alleviate those pressures by mobilising reservists and in some areas we have used contractors but sometimes posts have to be gapped and that is a hard fact. In the longer term, we have looked at the notion of the financial retention incentive to keep people in the service, and of course corporately we look at the structure of the Armed Forces to ensure they are properly structured to undertake the sort of operations that they are undertaking now.
Q90 Mr Lancaster: Let us be clear then. You are talking about a gapping post, and a gapping post as I understand it effectively means nobody is in it. So what sacrifices are you making to operational effectiveness if you are gapping posts, rank-ranging positions? Are you meeting the harmony guidelines? Which posts are currently gapped in Afghanistan or Iraq, ie have nobody in them?
Brigadier Andrews: I cannot tell you precisely which posts ----
Q91 Mr Lancaster: Are there any?
Brigadier Andrews: I would have to let you know that.
Q92 Chairman: Would it be possible, Brigadier, for you to write to us with those details?
Brigadier Andrews: Yes, it would, Sir, yes.
Des Browne: Subject to the support I have been receiving from the Brigadier in relation to the detail of this, I am not aware of any posts being gapped in either of these theatres.
Q93 Mr Lancaster: Neither am I, but I am just asking.
Des Browne: I do not think there are any, but I will confirm that.
Q94 Chairman: It would be helpful to know.
Des Browne: I would not like to leave the Committee with the impression that there is a possibility. I do not think there is any possibility of there being gaps but I will just check and make absolutely certain, since the Brigadier does not have that specific information here. My overwhelming impression is that there are no gaps.
Q95 Mr Lancaster: To be fair, I do not think there are but I am asking the question.
Brigadier Andrews: Just to make myself clear as well, gapping posts in operational theatres would be exceptional. Gapping posts elsewhere is something that we do have to do from time to time.
Chairman: Thank you very much. The final topic we would like to cover relates to personnel and to the Blake Review.
Q96 Mr Havard: The first question I would like to ask you is the question of the Armed Forces complaints commissioner which has now been announced. We really would like to know whether or not you have any further details on what exactly the role of that person is going to be. There was a general statement about accepting complaints directly from servicemen or family members and so on, but we are a bit short on detail and we would like to know, given our previous reports, exactly what they are going to be doing, what powers they have and how they relate to the rest of the structure?
Brigadier Andrews: As far as I know, those powers have not been drafted yet but, as you correctly say, that commissioner would be in a position to accept complaints and then of course to refer them to the Chain of Command for investigation. He would also have an important role in monitoring as an independent scrutineer the effectiveness and the fairness of that process.
Q97 Mr Havard: Can I understand very clearly what you have just said? They have not been drafted yet? In our Duty of Care Report we made suggestions about the type of process we would like to see and we made particular allusion to the Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland because we think this person should have quite extensive powers of investigation, calling evidence and all sorts of other things. We have had discussion on the Armed Forces Bill Committee and on the floor of the House about this, and we were told that this person of some sort of variety, not as we had described them but something slightly different, was going to come forward. Now you are telling me you have not even described what they are going to do.
Brigadier Andrews: The Armed Forces Bill contains provisions, which I am afraid I cannot set out for you. The detailed way in which the Services complaints commissioner could work will be a matter for later. That is my understanding and perhaps I may confirm that to you?
Des Browne: Can I say to the Committee that in the absence of being able to give the detail, dotting the I's and crossing the T's of this, the external reviewer will have wide powers in relation to complaints, bullying and harassment, as the Committee suggested and will be able to receive complaints directly from Service personnel or indeed made on their behalf by third parties, referring them then to the Chain of Command for action and to be notified of the outcome. To that extent, in relation to the component elements you have identified, Mr Harvard ----
Chairman: Kevan Jones served on the Bill.
Q98 Mr Jones: I am quite disappointed with the Brigadier's answer and I suspect what is going on is that the military do not want this commissioner. In terms of the Bill, which is in the Lords stage now, I am surprised even at this late stage you cannot actually tell us what the commissioner is going to be. Is it, Secretary of State, that you are a new secretary of state, it is in your box now, there is a danger the military will actually kill this off by stealth? When are we going to have the detail? If we do not have the detail in the Lords and amendments are not put down, I have to say there will be a lot of disappointed people, not just the families who have been campaigning for this, but I have to say a lot of Members of Parliament, on the Labour side as well, will be very annoyed if this is watered-down or the thrust which I think is needed in terms of improving the independent oversight of the Armed Forces is not actually followed through.
Des Browne: We have set ourselves the task of having a complaints system which is fair, transparent, effective and prompt. We have accepted there needs to be an external review element to that and I have set out to the Committee, in response to the concerns I understood the Committee had and in relation to its own recommendations, the elements which will be there. These issues will of course have to be subject to debate in the context of the Armed Forces Bill and people will have an opportunity to test them against the standards they have set. In my view, this independent element, this independent reviewer that we envisage, whose position in the complaints system will be reflected in the statute, will be able to achieve all of the ambitions Mr Havard has for him.
Q99 Mr Havard: I hope so. Can I raise a particular question at the moment? Not in my constituency but in the next door constituency but nevertheless part of the local extended family, as it were, we have just seen a boy die in training, apparently through a process called "beasting" which is a debate which has been going on for years. We were told during our Duty of Care inquiries that in these sorts of processes for dealing with physical punishments during training there were rules and regulations and advice to PTIs in particular about how they must deploy physical training. I do not want to go into the details of the particular case but what it raises in my mind is the suspicion that in fact what we have not seen is what we were promised, which is processes of supervision being put in place to avoid these things, so that if someone has committed a misdemeanour or not, or is in need of some sort of remedial training, be it physical or otherwise, they are dealt with in a proper civilised fashion, so that we have people being trained not brutalised, which is essentially what we were concerned about in the past. I am very concerned that the promises which were made to us and the descriptions we have had previously about how this was going to be carried out are clearly not working. I would like to know in a general question of duty of care, how the supervision processes are running in order to carry out what were promises which were made to us during that Report?
Des Browne: Can I deal with the general point and then on the specifics I will defer to the Brigadier, who may be in a position to give the detailed information. If he is not, then of course we will provide that detailed information. I do not think the Committee, the Chairman or the Committee, expect me to respond in the context of the specific case you referred to, Mr Havard.
Q100 Mr Havard: No. It is part of a police inquiry as well, as I understand it.
Des Browne: In my view we ought to restrict all of our comments in relation to that particular case. There is a police inquiry going on, there are people who are potentially subject to criminal charges but there is also a grieving family ---
Q101 Mr Havard: Yes.
Des Browne: --- who have lost a valued and loved member of their family and we need to be careful the conclusions we come to. Can I say to you that there is no place for bullying or brutalisation in the Armed Forces or in the Army, and we have made in my view significant progress in a comparatively short period of time to deal with these issues and certainly during my term of office I will be ensuring that the progress we have made is reinforced and put into application in the Armed Forces. It is no part of our responsibility to those people who come to serve in our Armed Forces to train them in a way which crosses the boundary between robust training and brutalisation, it is no part of our job to do that, and I do not know of anybody in the Army command structure who thinks it is. In relation to the specific programmes we have instituted recently, which is what I think you were asking for, to ensure that ambition is translated into practice, I will defer to the Brigadier.
Brigadier Andrews: Briefly, the key to this of course is in training, really good, purposeful and challenging training, particularly for non-commissioned officers and for instructors. In the light of all that we have learnt in recent years, a great deal of effort has gone into that, particularly in the Army, my own service. We have concentrated enormously on preparing instructors in particular for not only that they should be effective military instructors but that they understand profoundly well their duty of care to the people who are placed in their charge and whom they have to turn into soldiers. Of course we see the evidence of the quality of their work on operations as we speak.
Des Browne: I think the complementary element to that of course is the issue we were addressing earlier, which is the complaints procedure which is robust and which has the confidence of serving soldiers, particularly those who may be in a potentially vulnerable position. They have the confidence to complain, that the investigations are rigorous and thorough and that they are responded to appropriately. That is why I am pleased that the recommendations of the Blake Report have been so fully embraced by the Department and substantially reflected in the Armed Forces Bill.
Q102 Mr Havard: You have made the very connection I would have made and that is why I asked the question about where is the commissioner. One final question: there was a promise of a review. The Director of Army Personnel Strategy was appointed to conduct a review of the lessons learned from allegations of abuse by British soldiers in Iraq. All I would really like to ask is where has that got to and when are we likely to see something come from that review?
Des Browne: The Brigadier has indicated to me he knows the answer to that.
Brigadier Andrews: That review continues - I cannot comment of course on these cases and there is still particularly one case arising from very serious allegations made in Iraq which has yet to come to trial - and that review will not be complete until that Court Martial case has been completed.
Mr Havard: I just hope that the press have done their own review of their own behaviour during that process as well. Thank you very much.
Q103 Mr Jones: One point in terms of the commissioner: can I say, Secretary of State, do not let the Army, the Brigadier and his friends, water down the proposals for a commissioner, because if we actually lose the opportunity now of having an independent commissioner, I think something will be lost. Could you let the Committee know when these details are being put together because it is getting very close to the wire in terms of the Armed Forces Bill going through Parliament if we are going to have delay. What I would not want to happen is for it to fall off the end of the list and somehow we have to pick it up again in the next session because I think that will leave a lot of people very let down.
Des Browne: We have responded to the Blake Report on 13 June and I will ensure that Mr Jones and other members of the Committee, if they have not had access to that response, have access to it to comprehensively answer this question.
Q104 Mr Hancock: You said earlier, Secretary of State, that there was a robust complaints procedure but the Blake Report and this Committee's Report on Duty of Care came to the conclusion that was not there, and the essence of them was that the only way you would have a procedure which would actually clearly recognise that you were doing something was to put in place an Armed Forces commissioner. You did not answer the question about when you would expect this person to be in position and in post. It is one thing having the conditions of service for this person being written, but I think the Armed Forces are entitled to know when this person and his staff will be in place so that robust complaints procedure you talked about, Secretary of State, will actually be in place. Nobody should say at the present time there is a robust complaints procedure, because both Blake and this Committee reported quite comprehensively that that did not exist.
Des Browne: I think, Mr Hancock, that everything I have said to the Committee in relation to this assumes there is a knowledge about the nature of the Armed Forces Bill and the provisions in the Armed Forces Bill. If I have been wrong in doing that, then maybe I should have been more explicit. Clearly the changes we felt were necessary to the complaints procedure as a result of Nicholas Blake's recommendations involve primary legislation. Some of them, in fact all of them, are reflected in the Bill. The timescale for the implementation of them is dependent on the conclusion of the parliamentary procedure and then we will implement them once we have an Act of Parliament in the way in which Acts of Parliament are implemented through the proper process. So that is the answer. Until then, we have to re-double our efforts to ensure that we instil the level of confidence in the environment we have. Part of the difficulty we have in addressing these issues is that the discipline processes, the complaints processes, of the Armed Forces and in particular the Army are structured in an Act of Parliament and we have to amend the Act of Parliament.
Q105 Mr Hancock: So if that Bill completes its process by the autumn, you would expect to have the commissioner in place by the end of the year?
Des Browne: I cannot answer that question now. It seems to me that is potentially a hostage to fortune but I will endeavour to answer that question in written form giving the Committee the best estimate of how quickly the independent reviewer, the independent element of this process, can be in place after the Bill becomes an Act of Parliament.
Q106 Chairman: Thank you. Secretary of State, it would be wrong to end on a note of complaints against the Armed Forces, because when we visited the Armed Forces in Afghanistan and in Iraq we were all outstandingly impressed by the sort of work that they did, the sort of people that they were, and I think we felt a great deal of pride that they were there representing the United Kingdom in such an effective and brilliant way. I think you are a very lucky man to be in charge of those people out there.
Des Browne: Thank you very much indeed, Chairman. I will ensure that your sentiments on behalf of the Committee are reported back to those who should hear them rather than me, and that is the people whom we deploy on the ground. Can I just say part of the reason why as a priority this basket of issues which broadly goes towards reputation is so important to me is that I do not want a comparatively small number of issues to detract from the significant and deserved reputation that our Armed Forces have internationally.
Chairman: Thank you very much. Thank you also for facilitating our visits to those places in such an effective way because they were very good visits. Gentlemen, thank you very much for giving evidence this morning, it has been extremely helpful and in many cases very interesting.