Previous Section Index Home Page

Many things have been said and printed over the past week. Some of them have been true and some have
16 Apr 2007 : Column 29
been untrue, but I have made my position clear throughout. I have described to the House my involvement in this process—and, indeed, also the involvement of the Prime Minister. I have said that I made a mistake. If that caused people to question the hard-won reputation of the armed forces, I deeply regret that.

It will, of course, always be the case that the hon. Gentleman will be able to find a word that I have not used, but it seems perfectly clear to me that I have expressed a degree of regret that can be equated with an apology and if he wants me to say “sorry” then I am happy to say sorry. It is possible to come up with any number of questions, but what is important is that we focus and learn from these circumstances. I intend to do that, and to get on with the job.

The hon. Gentleman also questions whether I have the confidence of the armed forces. He and others will need to ask the armed forces that for themselves. I can say that they should do so because I have confidence as to the answer that they will receive.

On operational issues, the hon. Gentleman raised a number of questions. In my statement, I made the point that because of operational security there is a limit as to how useful or appropriate it would be to debate such issues. In particular, he asked questions about why the UK has not recommenced boarding operations. Currently, advice is awaited from PJHQ—permanent joint headquarters—as to where, when and how those operations will be recommenced, and until I receive that advice, no decision can be made.

On the other issues raised, I suggest that they are precisely those that the inquiry should, and will, look at. I hope that Members were clear from the description in my statement that this inquiry has the right scope and is led by an officer with the right expertise and objectivity to ensure that the issues are looked into properly, to ensure that Parliament gets the answers it deserves and, most importantly, to ensure that we learn the lessons for the future.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for notice of it. I echo his words of condolence in respect of the nine servicemen who have lost their lives and those who have been injured. The media coverage of this sorry affair has been a national embarrassment and the judgment that it would be right to allow those people to sell their stories has hardly been vindicated by the sort of reports that we have seen of one in particular complaining that he had had his iPod taken away and that his Iranian captors had called him Mr. Bean. That is not something that has covered the nation in glory around the world. The House will note that the Secretary of State has accepted some responsibility for those judgments.

The greater issues that need attention, and the questions that need to be asked now, relate not to the media coverage but to the original incident itself. Why was there inadequate cover? Why did the helicopter go back to the boat? Why, given that we are part of a coalition, were no other air assets available to help? Why were no other boats on hand? I understand that HMS Cornwall could not go in, but there are many craft between a RIB and HMS Cornwall. Why was no other support available in the sea? Following the
16 Apr 2007 : Column 30
previous incident, what sort of risk assessment had been made, and what lessons were learned?

Those are the sort of questions that the Secretary of State tells us will be addressed by the inquiry. We note that that has been set up by the Chief of the Defence Staff and is to be conducted by a former head of the Marines. Would it not be a valuable addition to have some political input, perhaps from Privy Councillors with relevant experience in that area.

It is those questions about what happened on 23 March that need to be answered and which should determine the fate of the Secretary of State for Defence. It would not be right for him to resign his post over the media coverage of those events while the Prime Minister and Cabinet who led us into the most disastrous foreign intervention in 50 years remained in post.

Des Browne: I do not intend to be drawn into a discussion that involves us sitting here, in the comfort of these Benches, and criticising the behaviour of young people whom we have asked to carry out a very dangerous job in dangerous circumstances—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] The hon. Gentleman asks several very pertinent questions and he is right that those are just the questions that the operational inquiry will have to consider. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to suggest questions for the inquiry, I would welcome that. I can assure him, from my conversations with the chiefs of staff—and in particular with the Chief of the Defence Staff—that it is already the intention that the terms of reference of that inquiry will reflect the broad range of questions that the hon. Gentleman poses. In passing, I should say that we will publish the terms of reference of the inquiry once they are settled.

The hon. Gentleman invites me to consider adding someone from a political background to Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton, who is an eminently qualified person to carry out an operational inquiry, given his distinguished career in the Royal Marines and his own significant experience of operations. That would be entirely inappropriate. It is important that the operational matters are investigated by and recommendations made by people with the appropriate experience and expertise to do that. I cannot think of anybody from a political background who would add anything to those necessary ingredients.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Since the shadow Secretary of State for Defence mentioned the offer from the Press Complaints Commission to advise the 15 young service people who were risking their lives for their country but were totally inexperienced in dealing with the press, can my right hon. Friend say whether the PCC cited the example of a public servant—the chairman of the PCC—who as ambassador to Washington broke every rule in the book in selling his story to the press? There was no PCC investigation of that.

Des Browne: Somewhat surprisingly, in the short e-mail received from the PCC no mention was made of the issues that my right hon. Friend raises. However, the offer should be seen in its proper context and in its terms. I am grateful to the PCC, which helpfully reminded the MOD on Thursday 5 April that it was on
16 Apr 2007 : Column 31
hand to help, should the need arise. That was the actual offer. As a matter of fact, early on, the MOD had put in place comprehensive plans to ensure that each family was properly protected from media intrusion, and that protection, which is part of our duty of care, continues. Our media minders report that, despite the media pressure on the families, to date none of the 15 service personnel or their families has complained about media harassment. I remind Members that the rules of the PCC require the commission to satisfy itself that any complaint has first been dealt with by the editor of the newspaper involved before the PCC can take and exercise its jurisdiction.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): The Secretary of State must appreciate that one does not have to be partisan to conclude that he has presided over a trinity of national embarrassment. He has already announced a public inquiry into the apprehension of the service personnel. He has apologised for the media handling, but he has not so far commented on the third national embarrassment—that certain of the service personnel, when they were apprehended and paraded on Iranian television, chose to apologise for their behaviour and for the fact that their country had— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the right hon. and learned Gentleman speak.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: These are matters of grave public importance, because in the past service personnel have constantly been instructed as to what they should do when they find themselves in the hands of the enemy. Is the Secretary of State taking action to discover whether those service personnel were given proper instructions as to how they should behave, and will he try to ensure that in future, so far as it is within the power of his Department, British service personnel do not give unjustified apologies that merely embarrass not only the Government but their country?

Des Browne: As I have already said, I do not intend, from the comparative comfort of this place, to get into criticising the way in which young people behaved in circumstances of which I have no experience. However, that said, I accept the broader points that the right hon. and learned Gentleman makes. I can assure him that all but one of the service personnel involved were given the appropriate training, as far as I am aware. I am advised that that is the case; all but one of them was given appropriate training in how to conduct themselves in those circumstances. However, the people who debriefed the personnel, who have the interrogation expertise to make this judgment, have told me that in their view those young people deported themselves and behaved well within the bounds of appropriate conduct in the situation in which they found themselves. I am not in a position to make that judgment on their behalf, but I accept the judgment made by those with the expertise. In my view, there is no legitimate criticism to be made of those young people and I do not accept that the way in which they conducted themselves and the way in which they
16 Apr 2007 : Column 32
were opportunistically exploited by the Iranians for propaganda purposes causes any embarrassment to this country.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be very aware that both Faye Turney and Arthur Batchelor are my constituents, so I was in close contact with the media during the course of their detention. Indeed, the media were camped outside a number of homes in my constituency and it became clear from my conversations with those people that they believed that the stories had already been sold before either Faye or Arthur left Tehran.

My right hon. Friend spoke about reviewing the regulations and ensuring that service personnel cannot sell their stories. How could the Government have controlled the leaking of stories via a third party? Clearly, the families were under the most pressure, so what specific support was given to the families: was it one-to-one, or did the families have to ask for it?

Des Browne: The specific support given to the families was the responsibility of the Royal Navy. Members will recollect that on the day the detainees were released, almost every single family expressed through the media its deep gratitude for the support received from the MOD and the Navy. These matters are continually kept under review to ensure that we are in a position to support families that find themselves in these very difficult circumstances. We can say with a degree of satisfaction that that part of the support passed without incident and certainly without controversy.

My hon. Friend puts her finger exactly on one of the complicating factors that created the difficult circumstances in which those who acted in good faith made the decision and interpretation of the regulations that they did. The view was taken—I understand this—that these stories would be told and that the likelihood was that they would be told in an uncontrolled environment where there would be some danger of risk to operational security. In my view, there can be no controversy about the decision to support the young people to tell their stories—just as the decision to support the young people who gave the press conference was the right decision to ensure that no operational risks would take place. The controversy arises from the issue of payment for those accounts of events, which is exactly what I have asked the review to look into. I will act on the recommendations of that review.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): On behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, I associate myself fully with the Secretary of State’s expressions of condolence.

Many of us believe that the Secretary of State should have declined to accede to the MOD request immediately he received it. Does it not presuppose a problem with military discipline? Should he not have gone back to the top brass and told them to remind the young people of their obligations and order them not to speak to the media?

Des Browne: I have admitted my mistake in relation to that matter and the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question can be seen by my actions subsequently, when I did just that.

16 Apr 2007 : Column 33

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): The Foreign Office and other parts of the Government who secured the release of our people from unjustified detention should be congratulated. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] However, those people in the United States and elsewhere—the neo-cons—who wanted to create some kind of military confrontation out of this crisis were not providing good advice. Will the Government continue to work in a measured, diplomatic and calm way to deal with the very difficult problems presented by this disgusting regime in Iran and its manipulation of the media? This will surely not be the last of the attempts by the Iranians to win propaganda victories. The reality is that we face very serious problems in that region and so does the rest of the region and the rest of the world.

Des Browne: As I have said before at the Dispatch Box, in my view Iran represents a strategic threat to the region by its behaviour, not least given the evidence that elements in Iran are interfering in Iraq, as well as the relationship with Hezbollah and, indeed, with terrorist and insurgent forces in Palestine. My hon. Friend is quite right that Iran has to be made to face up to its responsibilities. The Government’s efforts have concentrated on working with the international community, with our partners in the region and with others whom we worked with to secure the release of the detainees, and we will continue to do just that to ensure that the Iranian Government face up to their responsibilities.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): All the real losers in this sorry business are the men and women of the Royal Navy, who are hanging their heads in shame, as one of them said to me yesterday. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will ensure that the media inquiry looks at the reasons why, unlike the Army, the Royal Navy continues to refuse to have a permanent, professional media-trained staff to handle this sort of incident? Given that that has been the responsibility of the Second Sea Lord from start to finish of this sorry business, can the right hon. Gentleman confirm whether or not the Second Sea Lord has offered his resignation?

Des Browne: I have no evidence to suggest that the absence of that skill at that level in the command chain in the Navy contributed to the circumstances. It will, of course, be a matter that may come out in the review, in considering the support that individual services need to support their people in this modern media environment. I have no intention of discussing the status of the Second Sea Lord. As far as I am concerned, today is about my accountability to Parliament, and I have accepted my responsibilities.

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend may have anticipated having to endure a heavy barrage this afternoon, but from my perspective, it seems as though most of the shells were blank and all of them singularly ill-aimed. Does he agree that, while hell hath no fury like a tabloid editor outbid by a rival, those very editors would surely have been constructing headlines along the lines of “Hero hostages gagged” if they had not been allowed to speak? May I ask my right hon. Friend, in continuation of the calm, sober
16 Apr 2007 : Column 34
and dignified statement that he has made to the House this afternoon, to leave this matter to Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton, to concentrate on his vital task as Secretary of State for Defence and not to be further distracted by this irrelevance?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend, in his own inimitable style, puts his finger on part of the complexity of the environment that we now live in. In particular, supporting young people and their families in that environment if they are exposed, as these young people have been, to such newsworthy events is a significant challenge, and part of my responsibility and part of my intention, as I continue to lead the MOD, will be to ensure that we put in place the support that is necessary to ensure that we can protect our young people, to the extent that we can, from the complexity of those challenges and support them through the difficulties in which they might find themselves in future, because the one thing that is certain is that, as operations continue, the pressure on people to sell their stories to the media will continue.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): Is the decision to return the Lynx from the area of the boarding party the standard operational procedure for air support for such boarding operations? Why was HMS Cornwall—a batch 3 Type 22 frigate equipped to carry two Lynx helicopters—deployed in that war zone with only one Lynx helicopter?

Des Browne: Having a helicopter observe a compliant boarding was not required by the standard operating procedures. The Lynx was available and was used for the initial stages of the operation, in line with previous experience. Once the boarding party was aboard, the Lynx was tasked to return to the Cornwall. The helicopter did not remain above the al-Hanin not because of the availability of helicopters, but because operational procedures did not require it to remain. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question about why the Cornwall was deployed with the resources that it has is that that followed the assessment of the resources that would be needed to do the job.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend was quite right to come to the House at the earliest opportunity to give us an account of what happened in Iran. In all the fuss over the last week about the sale of the stories to the media, one fact seems to have been forgotten: our naval personnel were seized illegally and in an act of provocation by Iran, and their release was secured only by the success of British diplomacy. After my right hon. Friend’s statement, Britain’s best interests would be served by all of us condemning Iran for its action and reaffirming our support for the men and women of the British armed forces—the finest armed forces in the world—who deserve our backing as they continue our struggle in the middle east.

Des Browne: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his contribution. We should not forget that Iran detained our people illegally and that as a result of bilateral and multilateral pressure it was forced to return them without any form of deal and without the apology that the Iranian Government craved to save
16 Apr 2007 : Column 35
face. While the events of the last 10 days have not been satisfactory, they do not change the fundamental position. The Iranian Government know that they lost this propaganda war and so do the other countries of the region.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): The Government’s position seems to be that shallow-draft fast patrol craft cannot safely be deployed to the Gulf because they lack air assets, but given that Cornwall’s Lynx helicopter, on this occasion and for whatever reason, appears to have been as useful as a chocolate fire-guard, will the Minister revisit his decision to dispose of three minor war vessels that are tied up alongside in Devonport, pending the outcome of his review?

Des Browne: As with all military operations, the use of one capability over another involves a trade-off. As the hon. Gentleman points out, smaller vessels would inevitably not have many of the capabilities of HMS Cornwall and vice versa, which may have been relevant depending on the scenarios that we were dealing with. This is certainly an issue that the inquiry will consider—I will ensure that it does. I know that the Chief of the Defence Staff wants it to be one of the issues that the inquiry will consider. It is clear that minesweepers are not the answer, because they lack the speed required and are too lightly armed for this work.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I consider the Secretary of State a man of the highest integrity and of considerable humility—a quality that is missing too often in the House. He has said that he is sorry and we should leave it at that. Since the Navy does a very useful job in Iraq in patrolling the coast and protecting the oil infrastructure of the country, and in preventing smuggling, will he assure us that that operation will continue with our full backing?

Des Browne: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her opening remarks. I appreciate them greatly. Coming from her, they are all the more valuable to me. It is our intention to continue to make a contribution to the taskforce that carries out those maritime operations in the north Arabian gulf. I have visited one of our ships out there to see how important that work is. There has been a concentration on one aspect of their work in the House today, and understandably so, but substantially the Cornwall is there to protect a really important part of the Iraqi oil infrastructure: the oil terminal. That is why the Cornwall, and ships of that class, are the appropriate ships to be there: because of the nature of the work that they need to do. We should not forget that, on occasions, 85 per cent. of the GDP of Iraq comes out through that terminal. It is crucially important to the economic welfare and development of Iraq. It is not our intention to abandon that very important work that we currently carry out with the United States and the Australians, as well as with the Iraqis themselves.

Next Section Index Home Page