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We are doing a great deal of work on the type of person who is likely to become an offender. When people enter the criminal justice system, they have often gone too far down the line to get them out of it. Perhaps we can achieve a cross-party consensus on
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some of those issues, and I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman uses his influence on the liberal tendency in his party to make that happen. We can make a difference, and I hope that we will.

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): As one who does not read the Daily Mail and who views the prospect of 100,000 of my fellow citizens being incarcerated more as a source of national regret than a symbol of political virility, may I compliment my right hon. Friend on having discussed the alternatives? May I draw his attention to the problem of secure accommodation and bail hostels, particularly in west London, where there are no vacant places today. I appreciate that the Minister launched a programme yesterday, but what hope can he give to those justices of the peace who want to place people in bail hostels but who are unable to do so?

Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend has raised an important point. As he has mentioned, yesterday the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South, announced an increase in the number of bail hostels in the course of this year. The bail hostel places programme will provide approximately 1,000 extra places in the course of this year, and I hope that we can examine the pressures in areas such as west London and make that figure a reality. Those 1,000 places are not cheap, and they are paid for through taxation. We make that our priority; other parties may not.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Is the Minister aware of the contribution to prison overcrowding made by the growing length of time spent in prison by unconvicted remand prisoners? In particular, there has been a big growth in the population of young offenders institutions since 2001. The issue is not more prison places, but more efficient courts.

Mr. Hanson: There is a range of issues. I accept that many people are held on remand, in some cases for very long periods. Again, I cannot generalise. Some people are held on remand because they may ultimately be convicted of serious violent and sexual offences, and the public need that element of protection during the course of the trial process, which can be very long. I hope that in many cases the Ministry of Justice can serve an important function in considering the criminal justice system in terms of the supply side of prisons and community sentences, and in the efficient management of the Courts Service, so that we help to reduce some of the delays that mean that people spend a long time on remand before their conviction or acquittal.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Last week, my constituent, Kenneth Milburn of Enderby, was jailed for five years for illegal possession of handguns. The judge said that the crime did not merit a jail sentence and that he jailed him with “great sadness”. That was the result of poor legislation passed by this House. Mr. Milburn threatened or harmed nobody, and he is unlikely to reoffend. Will the Minister look at that case so that perhaps we can free up a place in prison for a burglar and let out Mr. Milburn, who is unlikely to harm anybody, and who is deaf, 63 and in ill health?

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Mr. Hanson: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that I am unable to comment on individual cases that he may bring up. I do not know the details of the case or the circumstances in which the judge considered it. However, the gun legislation is in place for a positive reason—to help to reduce gun crime and its impact. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me with the details of the case, I will look at them and respond as positively as I can.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Does the Minister agree with staff at Dorchester prison, which I recently visited, whose assessment is that one of the main points of entry into prisons of illegal drugs and other contraband is through abuse of the release on licence system? In effect, what happens is that somebody who is released on licence loads themselves up with drugs in every available orifice, commits another offence, and then goes back into the prison having been used as a camel so that the drug material gets in there. I was told that that is the main means by which drugs are now getting into Dorchester prison. In that case, why is the Minister extending the system?

Mr. Hanson: I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. We need to tackle drug trafficking into prisons, perhaps through a range of measures given the variety of means whereby those drugs get in. Under the current system, 405,259 releases on temporary licence took place in 2005, of which only 339 are failures. The modest extension of the scheme that I announced today will involve about 1,400 individuals. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point very seriously. We need to tackle drugs in prison, and there is a range of ways in which we can undertake that. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South, is working hard with the Prison Service to do so. If the hon. Gentleman wishes me to, I will certainly look at some of the evidence regarding the prison in his constituency.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that more than 60 per cent. of the 12,000-plus people in our young offenders institutions suffer from speech, language and communication problems that prevent them from accessing education courses, and that the reoffending rate in that category is approximately 80
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per cent., will the Minister display real courage and vision in agreeing that every such institution in the country should employ a speech and language therapist so that we can tackle the problem whereby people go into and come out of prison uncommunicative, uneducated, untrained, unqualified, unreformed and unemployed?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman makes an exceptional point. A large element among the people who are in prison today face the problems that he mentions. Through his all-party group on speech and language difficulties, he is doing significant work to raise those issues in Parliament. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I have given him a commitment to consider the matter in detail. It is important that we raise the basic literacy and numeracy levels of people entering prison. We need to create, as I hope we will, greater employability for them on their release, because employability, confidence, literacy and numeracy are the keys to preventing reoffending.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Is this not yet one more blow to honesty in sentencing—the relationship between the nominal sentence and the time spent in prison? For example, how long will someone who receives a sentence of six months’ imprisonment spend in prison if they are released either under the provisions that the Minister announced or home detention curfew?

Mr. Hanson: Again, I cannot go into the details. The reply depends on many factors, including a risk assessment that the prison governor undertakes and the crime that the individual committed. The statement made it clear that serious and dangerous offenders and a range of others will not qualify for any scheme. We will ensure that, when possible, individuals who are reaching the end of their sentence and can return home earlier under licence can also, if recalled in the event of any breaches, be helped to reintegrate into the community at the end of their sentence to help with some of the pressures that we face in the Prison Service and that they face in their daily lives. I cannot comment on the particulars but, if the hon. Gentleman examines the scheme in detail, he will realise that it is effective, operates already and will not pose the danger to the public that many people believe.

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Iran (Detention of Naval Personnel)

4.16 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): On 16 April I announced that the Chief of the Defence Staff had appointed Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton of the Royal Marines, currently the Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Gibraltar, to lead an inquiry into the operational circumstances surrounding the seizure of 15 of our personnel on 23 March. I also announced an independent review of the media handling of the incident and its aftermath, and subsequently confirmed that it would be led by Mr. Tony Hall, chief executive of the Royal Opera house and formerly the BBC’s director of news and current affairs. I am grateful to General Fulton and Tony Hall, who have both completed their respective reports to tight deadlines with all the professionalism and candour that was expected of them. I am now informing the House of their findings, as I undertook to do.

I begin by stressing that the two reports are very different in nature and therefore require different handling. Mr. Hall’s review is a public document, which is today placed in the Library of the House and published on the MOD website. As I made clear in April, General Fulton’s report is classified, because it addresses operational and tactical issues, which cannot be discussed in public without increasing the risks to our forces. Nevertheless, those events and the issues that they raise are legitimate subjects of parliamentary and public concern. To balance those factors, I decided that I would give a broad outline of General Fulton’s findings to the House, but that the full report would be given to the Defence Committee. That has been done; I leave it to the Chairman and members of that Committee to comment today as they see fit.

General Fulton highlights the complex and dynamic nature of the northern Gulf as an operating environment. We are there as part of a coalition maritime force carrying out a variety of demanding tasks against a backdrop of wider and rapidly evolving international issues. His report is impressively thorough. It has looked at every aspect of the incident, and others that may hold valuable lessons. To complete the report, he has carried out lengthy interviews with all the people involved and at every level of the chain of command.

Hon. Members urged that specific matters should be considered, and I would like to tackle some of those points to the extent that I can do that, consistent with the constraints of operational security that I mentioned.

First, General Fulton considered the events on the Shatt al-Arab waterway in June 2004. He concluded that, although there were some broad similarities in the circumstances, the events were different, and that the requisite lessons of the time were learned and applied. Secondly, he considered the rules of engagement and confirmed that they were entirely appropriate for the task and remain so today. Thirdly, his report is clear that the event was not the result of equipment or resource issues, including helicopter availability, the size and suitability of the Cornwall or the size and armament of the boarding party’s boats. The coalition force commander in the Gulf has reiterated that he is
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content with the capabilities deployed by the UK but, as ever, we keep that under review. Finally, General Fulton confirmed that the presence of the BBC on HMS Cornwall was not a factor in any of the operational decisions taken on 23 March.

General Fulton has, however, identified some shortcomings. This was a coalition operation—hon. Members will not need me to spell out the merits of that—but clearly there is a cost in terms of added complexity. Despite that, it is vital that the procedures that we all share can adapt rapidly to change in such a complex strategic environment. General Fulton’s report has identified some faults in that respect, and we are addressing them with our coalition partners.

General Fulton has also identified some specific national shortcomings. The central lesson is that we must improve our ability to identify and assess the risks that this complex environment generates, and to train and posture our forces accordingly. He noted the need for improvements in a range of areas: in the handling of intelligence, in communications, in doctrine and in training—both individual and collective.

On training in particular General Fulton notes—and this is worth repeating—that the Royal Navy’s generic training for operations remains world class. By the time a Royal Navy ship deploys on operations, it is well prepared for a wide range of potential roles. However, the report does identify a need to improve some training specific to particular tasks, including boarding. Furthermore, it recommends that in future we deploy specialist rather than composite teams for boarding operations—a recommendation that we have already acted on. General Fulton also recommends that we ensure that we learn quickly from the experience of other nations operating in the area and get better at sharing information with them.

Above all, General Fulton’s report concludes that the events of 23 March were not the result of a single gross failing or individual human error, but of the coming together of a series of vulnerabilities, many relatively small when viewed in isolation, which together placed our personnel in a position that could be exploited by Iran. His conclusions suggest that there is no case for disciplinary action against any of the individuals involved— [Interruption.]—but his report emphasises that many of those individuals could have done more to prevent what happened. In that respect, it identifies some failings, both collective and individual, which the Royal Navy’s chain of command will consider and deal with.

General Fulton recommends a range of actions to address the shortcomings that he has identified. An action plan has been drawn up and a number of measures have already been taken, allowing us to recommence boarding operations in April, and further measures are under way. The Select Committee on Defence has been briefed on the action plan, but as I indicated at the start, there is a limit to how much I can say to the House. I can say that I, together with the chiefs of staff, are content that General Fulton’s report and the resulting action plan will ensure that our people are properly prepared for future operations.

I turn to the Hall review, and let me say at the outset that we accept all of its recommendations. In my statement to the House on 16 April, I made it clear that the intention of the review was not to embark on a witch
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hunt focused on apportioning blame for the decision to allow media payments to the returning detainees. Like the Fulton report, the Hall review confirms that it would be wrong and counter-productive to focus on finding individuals to blame for these events. What was needed was a calm and dispassionate assessment of what happened in order to learn the lessons and to improve the ability of the MOD and the services to handle similar events in future.

Tony Hall makes it plain that on the question of whether payment should have been made for individual stories, there was a

within the department allowing that to happen. In my earlier statement to Parliament, I accepted that failing as my responsibility and apologised to the House.

I welcome the report’s clear recommendation that media payments to serving military or civilian personnel for talking about their work should simply not be allowed. That confirms my announcement on 9 April of an interim ban on acceptance of media payments. Work is now under way to make detailed amendments to service and MOD regulations and guidance to reflect that conclusion. The report further identifies that work is needed to establish a clearer policy on the naming of individuals and their families in such cases. That work, too, is already under way.

The report also identifies some broader themes. Perhaps most crucial is the huge change over the past 25 years in the context in which media coverage of operations takes place. Media access has increased significantly and the agenda has changed. The focus on the individual, for example, inevitably clashes with the service ethos of group first, and the desire to present instantaneous news from the heart of the action can conflict with the need for operational security. That means that, although it is clearly in the interests of the MOD and the media to co-operate, tensions exist. We need to manage those tensions better, and we need to rebuild confidence between the MOD and the media. The report also makes it clear that we need to help the media to develop a better understanding of defence issues so that they can be set in context.

The report recommends that, for the future, the lead for the media handling of such episodes should lie clearly with the MOD, rather than with a front-line command or a single service. It also recommends some strengthening of what the report notes is a relatively small central press office. The report also makes clear a number of recommendations on the need for clearer decision-making processes. I accept those entirely. Unequivocal understanding of who should sanction what is essential. The recent capability review, published in March, also highlights that, and in response we have already been looking at how we can clarify responsibilities and improve accountability within the Department.

I hope that it is clear that we have sought, wherever possible, to learn the lessons from this difficult episode, both operationally and in terms of media handling, and to be open and accountable in so doing. We have had two reviews: one independently led, and today put into the public domain; the second, of necessity, classified, but shared with the Defence Committee to
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ensure proper parliamentary accountability. Both are very thorough and professional. Both offer clear, detailed recommendations, all of which we accept, and many of which are already well in hand. Both are focused on the future, determined to help ensure that we do not make these mistakes again. The Chief of the Defence Staff and my permanent secretary will take the lead in implementing the recommendations. I expect the great majority to be implemented by the end of this year, and many of them sooner than that.

I will end by saying that I know that we have the best armed forces in the world. They are respected everywhere for their bravery, their professionalism and their ability to get results. Some have argued that this incident has dented their hard-won reputation, but I do not believe that to be true. Their reputation is more durable than that. These reports will help us to maintain and enhance that reputation, and I intend to ensure that we succeed.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement. He will be aware that I returned from the Falklands with the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), at lunchtime, and that I have therefore been unable to see a copy of the report or to have a full briefing on it. I am grateful to the Minister of State, however, for his oral briefing in the middle of last night somewhere over the Atlantic. If I stray into operational elements covered in the report, I hope that the Secretary of State will understand that that is utterly unintentional.

The seizure of our naval personnel caused great anger across the country, not least because of their subsequent treatment at the hands of the Iranians. We are not seeking to name scapegoats today, however; that would be in no one’s interests, least of all those of our forces on deployment. However, the House must know that Ministers have asked all the relevant questions and that all remedies have been undertaken to minimise the risk of such an event happening again. It is also important to avoid giving the impression that no one is to blame for what was a national embarrassment. I am sure that the Select Committee will want to consider the report in great detail in the months ahead. Over the past few days, I have had the chance to speak to a large number of Royal Navy personnel, many of whose views concurred closely with those expressed in the Fulton report.

I would like to raise a number of specific issues with the Secretary of State. It is clear that the frequency of successful and unresisted boardings produced a diminished sense of danger, so that the equipment used on the occasion that we are discussing was deemed suitable. Is he satisfied that, in an increased state of alert, we have sufficient alternative and additional equipment available? Is he convinced that the helicopter cover is now sufficient, both in platform numbers and hours allocated, for the task of boarding? On intelligence, is he satisfied that information from UK and other sources is sufficient to warn of an increased risk of attack, above and beyond a necessarily high base line, given the approach and activities of the Revolutionary Guard? He also mentioned training. Will he tell the House more about where in naval training the failures have occurred? We are pleased that, in future, specialist teams will be used for boarding. It is, after all, dangerous work, not work experience.

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