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Equality Act Regulations

25. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What recent discussions the commissioners have had on the likely effect of the implementation of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 on parish ministries in areas of need. [131446]

Sir Stuart Bell: The Archbishops Council has been giving careful consideration to the effect of the regulations and will be producing general advice. [Interruption.]

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Mr. Speaker: Order. It is unfair to the hon. Gentleman for hon. Members to make so much noise. I ask them to be quiet. There are only a few minutes to go.

Mr. Bone: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s reply, but does he agree that it would have been better if there had been more discussion about those regulations and Members of this House had been allowed to speak on them before the decision was made?

Sir Stuart Bell: That is of course a matter for the House authorities, not for me. I would, however, say that the regulations contain a set of exceptions for religious organisations, broadly equivalent to those in the Equality Act 2006, and it is for individual parishes to decide whether to take advantage of those exceptions.

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3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about operational events over the recess.

Before I start, I know that the whole House will want to join me in expressing my condolences to the families and friends of the nine servicemen and women who have lost their lives since the House last sat.

On 1 April Kingsman Danny Wilson and on 2 April Rifleman Aaron Lincoln were killed by small arms fire while on patrol in Basra city. On 5 April Second Lieutenant Joanna Yorke Dyer, Corporal Kris O’Neill, Private Eleanor Dlugosz, Kingsman Adam Smith and their interpreter were killed when their Warrior vehicle was hit by a massive bomb west of Basra city. On 13 April Private Chris Gray was killed in Afghanistan in a firefight with the Taliban, and on Saturday night two servicemen were killed when two UK helicopters collided north of Baghdad. An investigation is ongoing, but all the evidence so far indicates that that was an accident, not an attack.

Several personnel were seriously injured over that period in those and other incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan and they, too, are in our thoughts. That is a reminder of the risks faced every day by our forces on our behalf. I offer our gratitude and profound respect for those who have died and those who have been injured in the service of their country.

I am sure that the House will wish me in the time available to focus on the incident that has attracted the most public and parliamentary attention over the recess, namely the incident in which 15 of our personnel were captured and detained by the Iranians, and the events that followed. I will describe, first, the incident itself; secondly, how it was handled diplomatically; and thirdly, how it was handled in media terms, including the decision to allow serving personnel to talk to the media individually and to accept payment for so doing—decisions for which, as I have already made clear, I accept responsibility. Finally, I will set out how we intend to learn the lessons for the future.

Let me first turn to the incident itself. On 23 March HMS Cornwall was operating as part of the Coalition Task Force in the northern Arabian gulf, under the authority of a UN resolution. The task force is responsible for a range of maritime security operations, including protecting the Iraqi oil infrastructure and undertaking boardings to disrupt weapons smuggling.

At 07.53 Cornwall launched two boats, with a Lynx helicopter in support, with the intention to board MV Tarawa, a merchant vessel that had evaded a boarding the day before. En route, the Lynx flew over a different vessel, MV al-Hanin, and reported a suspect cargo. A decision was made to board the al-Hanin. The position was well inside Iraqi waters.

The boarding team boarded the vessel and, at 08.46, the Royal Marine boarding officer reported the ship secure. The Lynx was tasked to return to Cornwall. By 09.00 the helicopter was back on board and put at 30 minutes’ notice to fly.

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At 09.04 one of the two Royal Navy boats reported Iranian Revolutionary Guard navy activity nearby. Very soon afterwards, one of the boats reported that the Iranians were “beside them”. By 09.06 voice communications with the boats were lost, and shortly after, all communications were lost. At 09.28 the Lynx was launched again and returned to the position of the al-Hanin. Initially it was unable to find the UK boats but at 10.05, one was spotted being escorted by Iranian vessels.

That concludes what I can say about the operational details. I am happy to answer questions, but there is not much more to say at this stage, until investigations are complete. I will say two final things. First, the Royal Navy is not currently conducting boarding operations, although coalition partners are, and the Navy continues to fulfil its other tasks. Secondly, I support the decision of the Royal Marine captain to order his boarding party to lower their readied weapons. As he put it, he judged that, if they had resisted,

Let me turn now to the diplomatic handling of the incident. The Iranians detained our personnel illegally, taking them first to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval base, and from there to Tehran. We made it clear, both directly to the Iranians and in public statements, that their detention was unacceptable and that they should be released immediately. We made intense diplomatic efforts to establish direct lines of communication with Iranian leaders, to prevent the situation from escalating and to resolve it quickly. It became clear that this alone would not be enough, not least because of the internal struggles within Iran as to who had control of the situation. We therefore galvanised the international community to put pressure on the Iranian regime. The Prime Minister has rightly paid tribute to those friends in the EU, in the UN, and in the region who supported us and condemned the illegal detention. I am in no doubt that this focused minds at the top of the Iranian regime.

Our personnel were released on Wednesday 4 April, after a predictable attempt by the Iranian President to turn it into a propaganda victory. But this should fool no one. Serious observers do not believe that Iran has emerged from this in a stronger position, and we should remember that our main objective—the peaceful resolution of the incident and the safe return of our people—was achieved, earlier than many predicted. And let me be clear: there was no apology, and there was no deal.

Let me turn now to the media handling of this incident. On Thursday 5 April, the 15 personnel arrived in the UK, and were debriefed and reunited with their families. The next day, six of the 15 held a collective press conference, organised by the MOD, which was uncontroversial. The controversy surrounds the relations between individual personnel and the media. The media had approached the families of the detainees while they were still being held in Iran. There were many offers of payment. These approaches intensified as soon as the 15 were released, and it was clear that the pressure would soon be transferred from the families to the individuals themselves. They were
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already aware of the criticism of their behaviour while detained, and some were intent on setting the record straight.

This left us with a dilemma. We had a duty of care to the individuals and their families, who were under intense pressure. On the Thursday, all those involved took the view that we should allow the individuals to talk to the media, and that we should support them through that process. I believe that all those involved in this decision acted in good faith and out of a desire to protect the individuals, to protect the service, and to protect operational security against the risks inherent in unofficial dialogue with the media. These were real risks, which have materialised in the past.

Once the decision had been taken to allow the individuals to talk to the media, this raised a second question: how to handle the fact that the media were competing for these individuals by offering substantial sums of money. This second question was considered by the Navy over the same short period. The Navy concluded that payments were “permissible” under Queen’s Regulations, and that in this particular situation it was “impractical to attempt to prevent” them. This was the position presented to me in a note sent from the Navy’s HQ in Portsmouth to my office on Thursday afternoon, and which was put to me on Good Friday. I accept in retrospect that I should have rejected the note and overruled the decision. The circumstances were exceptional, and the pressure on the families was intense. The Navy’s decision was made in good faith, and so was its interpretation of the regulations; but I should have foreseen that that attempt by the Navy, in good faith, to handle an exceptional situation would be interpreted as indicating a departure in the way in which the armed forces deal with the media.

Over the weekend I discussed the issue further, and on Monday I asked for further advice from naval chiefs and the Chief of the Defence Staff. I decided that we must review the rules immediately, and stop any further media payments to serving personnel until the review was complete. I informed the Prime Minister—which, as he has made clear, was his only involvement in this matter—and announced the decision in a statement.

Let me be clear to the House: I made a mistake. I have been completely open about that. To the extent that what happened between Friday and Monday has caused people to question the hard-won reputation of the armed forces, that is something I profoundly regret; but I remind people that precisely because that reputation is hard won, it is not easily undermined.

Those are the facts as I know them. Let me now turn to what happens next. I made clear on Monday the implications for the specific issue of serving personnel receiving payment—I made it clear that it must not happen again—but clearly there are other lessons to be learned from the whole incident.

The first aspect relates to the operational circumstances and factors leading to the capture of the 15 personnel. This was an unusual situation with wide and far-reaching consequences. To reflect that, I can announce that the Chief of the Defence Staff has appointed Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton of the Royal Marines, currently the Governor and Commander in Chief of Gibraltar, to lead an inquiry.
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As a retired former commander of UK amphibious task forces, he will bring both expertise and objectivity to the inquiry.

The inquiry will cover all operational aspects, including risk and threat assessment, strategic and operational planning, tactical decisions, rules of engagement, training, equipment and resources. I expect it to take around six weeks. Clearly those conducting the inquiry will consider operationally sensitive material and it will therefore not be possible to publish all the conclusions, but they will be presented to the House of Commons Defence Committee in full. I am committed to ensuring that Parliament and the public have the full facts, but also—which is just as important—to ensuring that the Ministry of Defence and the services learn from these events and do not let this happen again.

In a similar spirit and in the same time frame, I can also announce that I will be asking a small team to take over the review of the media handling which I started last week. The team will consist of a senior officer and a senior MOD official, both unconnected with these events, and will be led by an independent figure with wide media experience. The review will draw on all relevant experience, not just this particular incident but other high-profile incidents involving personnel on operations.

I want to make it clear that the review is not a witch hunt. As I have already said, I take responsibility for this particular case. Rather, the review will seek to identify lessons and make recommendations on how to manage the complex issues involved. It will make recommendations on how to balance our duty to support our people with our duty of transparency, our duty to protect the reputation of the services and, most important, our duty to protect the security of our personnel in a demanding media environment.

I take responsibility for what happened last weekend. I have acted to put it right. I have acted to ensure that we learn the lessons of the whole episode, in a manner that allows full parliamentary scrutiny. As we go through that process, we should remember the most important point—which is that we got our people back safe, and on our terms.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): Let me begin by fully associating the official Opposition with the sentiments expressed by the Secretary of State about the nine servicemen and women who died serving our country. Our thoughts and prayers will be with their friends and families, and the whole country should be proud of and grateful to them.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, but like all Members, I deeply regret the circumstances that made it necessary. The statement goes to the very heart of our democratic system, because it poses the question “What are politicians responsible for?”.

No one expects the Secretary of State for Defence to have day to day knowledge, far less management, of naval manoeuvres in the Persian gulf, but the wider picture is a different story. It is only three years since naval personnel were illegally abducted by Iranian forces. It should never have been allowed to happen again, especially as the threat from an ever-more belligerent Iranian regime has increased rather than decreased.

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How can it be that the incursion of Iranian forces was not detected by air or by the ship’s radar? If it was detected, why was it not communicated to our sailors and marines? If communications were lost at 09.06, as the Secretary of State said, why did it take until 09.28 for the Lynx helicopter to be relaunched? Perhaps more importantly, do we even have the right naval configuration now in the northern gulf? If the northern waters are too shallow for HMS Cornwall and if we still need to protect Iraqi oil installations and carry out searches on shipping in the gulf, should we not have more, smaller vessels to supplement the activity and properly protect our personnel?

I note that there are other countries continuing their UN duties of searching shipping in the gulf. I believe that the decision to stop the Royal Navy boarding shipping in the light of this incident sends exactly the wrong signals about our resolve and intention.

We welcome the announcement of an inquiry, but we want an assurance that there will be a chance for the whole of the House of Commons to debate its broad findings, not just the Defence Committee, for this is an issue of great national importance. As the shadow Foreign Secretary said yesterday,

Or, as The Sunday Times put it,

Countries are inclined to take risks if they detect a lack of resolve. Does no one in the Government actually feel responsible for the national humiliation that we have suffered at the hands of the pariah regime of Iran?

But even if Ministers do not feel responsible for that, they cannot avoid the direct responsibility for the second fiasco; the media handling of the return of the captives. The eventual return of the captives, welcome as it was, was not a shock and the shambles around the media handling is unforgivable. The Government initially excused the decision— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must be heard. There should be no interruption.

Dr. Fox: The Government initially excused the decision to allow stories to be sold on the basis that there was excessive media pressure and that stories would come out anyway. Yet we now know that the Press Complaints Commission offered to help the Government in preparation for this matter in advance but were snubbed by the Government. The Government initially told us, repeated by the Secretary of State today, that this was a decision for the Navy. But we know that that is not true. The Defence Council guidelines, published in 2004 after the death of David Kelly, state that for those seeking to deal with the media on national issues, authorisation should be obtained from the chief press officers in the directorate news organisation. Queen’s Regulations clearly state:

Queen’s Regulations also state that

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Does not that make a mockery of the Secretary of State’s version of events? He says that he was asked to note the decision. The truth is that he is asked to make the decision, as Secretary of State. He said that, over the weekend, he was not content with the analysis and he did not think that the Navy was either. Given that neither was content with it, why did it take almost 72 hours for the policy to change? The Secretary of State said previously that Downing street was not aware of the decision until the Sunday. Yet the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Foreign Secretary and I were all aware on the Saturday. How can that be true? Is not the truth that the Secretary of State went back to his constituency without fully appreciating the importance of the decision he was making, and is not that the greatest indictment of all?

What I find most unbelievable is that a decision to allow stories to be sold could be taken without understanding the impact that that would have on the Army, the RAF and large parts of the Navy. For those in the Army in particular, which has taken the bulk of casualties and fatalities, to see unharmed naval colleagues profit financially caused anger, injury and offence. The hurt done to the families involved can only be guessed at. It was best summed up by the mother of one of those whose bodies were returned to the United Kingdom last week. She said:

In a more honourable time in politics, the resignation of a Secretary of State who had overseen such a humiliating fiasco on his watch would have been an inevitability. The Secretary of State said that he took responsibility, but the word “sorry” never passed his lips. When Argentina invaded the Falkland islands 25 years ago, no one believed that that was the fault of Lord Carrington. Yet he and his team resigned because it happened on their watch and they believed that the buck stopped with them. For them, that was a matter of honour.

We have asked a number of detailed questions of the Secretary of State. On the basis of his statement today, I believe that his position is becoming untenable as he cannot command the necessary confidence in his political decision making. That confidence is essential to the belief, morale and strength of our armed forces. His colleagues must make their own judgments. Ultimately, so must he.

Des Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks in relation to those who have been lost while the House has been in recess. He speaks for all Members in what he says on that.

Anybody who has been following the hon. Gentleman’s comments over the past week could be forgiven for not being absolutely clear as to what his position is. Members will remember that initially he was accusing me of orchestrating this entire episode for propaganda purposes. A couple of days later he was complaining that precisely the opposite was the case—that I did not orchestrate the episode at all. Clearly, those claims cannot both be correct.

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