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19 Jun 2007 : Column 1259

There is an issue that I think the whole House needs to discuss, that of embedded media. Can the Secretary of State tell us, as a matter of fact, whether the BBC crew was still on board HMS Cornwall when the seizure took place? The authors of the report clearly do not believe that the presence or otherwise of BBC personnel was a factor in our operational decisions, but what about the other side? What about the Iranians? Does not the presence of live television crews in a place where we know the Iranians are constantly considering attacks provide a potential incentive for them in the knowledge that they have a ready media audience in attendance? Does that not deserve far more attention in the future?

The whole report is scathing about the Government’s approach to media handling. The Ministry of Defence did not take control, therefore the media set the agenda. It would have been sensible to involve the Press Complaints Commission, but the Government refused the offer. There was a collective failure of judgment. Many people could have said no to the sale of individual stories, but no one did so. Ultimately, that is the Secretary of State’s job.

One final issue needs to be raised—Labour’s handling of MOD press since 1997. There are 229 people in the Government’s communications department at the MOD. This Government abolished uniformed single-service press officers in their attempt to control and politicise MOD press, and it is clear that they could not even do that competently. The Conservatives believe that the abolition of uniformed single-service press officers was a mistake, and an incoming Conservative Government will reverse it.

As I have said, I believe that the Government’s handling of the whole crisis, especially the media aspect, made a national embarrassment incomparably worse. The Secretary of State has already apologised to the House for his role in the media handling, and naturally the House accepts that; but the whole House will expect it not to be repeated. Our forces are the best in the world, and they certainly deserve better.

Des Browne: I think that I can deal with all the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. I do not think that any of them transgressed the border between what we can discuss in the House and what cannot be discussed for reasons of operational security.

Let me say at the outset that mistakes were made—of that there is no doubt—and I have accepted full responsibility. There are matters that must be put right, which is why I was determined that we would conduct the two reviews whose results I have announced today. I asked for the faults to be exposed and for recommendations to be made on how they could be corrected, and I believe that both General Fulton and Tony Hall have done that for us. I intend to see this through, and will see through the operational side with the supervision of the Select Committee.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of resources. That was addressed in the report. As I said in my statement, the report makes it clear that the incident did not result from equipment or resource issues. Indeed, the coalition maritime commander has explicitly said he is content that he has the resources required for the tasks that he is given; but, as ever, we keep resources under review. I have said many times that we will always
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seek to give commanders the resources they need for the job that we ask of them, and we will keep those resources under consideration as part of our continuing review.

There has been a great deal of speculation about helicopters, but the bottom line is that if the helicopter had been asked to stay at the scene, it could have done so. There is sufficient helicopter support for these operations. That issue, however, comes within the broader continuing review of resources.

Was there an intelligence failure? General Fulton’s inquiry centred on exactly that sort of question. Clearly, any failings in this regard would be operationally sensitive, but I can tell the House that there were shortcomings, which will be addressed through a plan overseen by the chiefs of staff. The Select Committee has been briefed in detail, and I do not intend to go into any further details.

The generic training given to the Navy through FOST—flag officer sea training—was considered to be world class against the test of the review, but a shortcoming was identified in relation to the need to train for specific tasks, particularly boarding. That is exactly what has been addressed, as well as the issue of there being specifically nominated boarding parties instead of the way in which they were previously put together.

The BBC was present on HMS Cornwall at the time. General Fulton’s reputation goes before him, and I am sure that all who know him know that he has done a thorough and professional job. He has come to the view that the BBC’s presence had no operational effect.

I shall now turn to the Hall report and the media—

Dr. Fox: Intelligence?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman asks about intelligence; I have already addressed that issue. There were shortcomings in respect of intelligence, which have been dealt with, but I shall not go into the detail of them in public for obvious reasons.

I realise that my reply is lengthy, but a series of questions were asked to which I should respond. At the heart of the Hall report is the judgment that the MOD, as opposed to the single service, should have taken responsibility for the media and for the media handling of the captives when they were returned. I accept that recommendation and that analysis. However, although that judgment is correct, it does have the benefit of hindsight. It was the view of those planning to receive the released captives that they should be received back into a military environment. The same analysis informs a lot of calls for us to receive injured servicemen back into a military environment, in order to enable them to recover from the trauma that they have been through. The view was taken, which I agreed with at the time, that it was right to bring these people back into a service environment. However, as the Hall report makes clear, there was at the time a media storm, and the level of media demand outstripped the ability of that environment to cope. I accept that, and I also accept that we need to make sure that that never happens again.

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An offer from the PCC came on the day of the captives’ release. The Hall report recommends that there should be engagement with the PCC in developing the ability of our media shielders to support people through the early stages of such a process. I also accept that recommendation. It is entirely different from what was offered to the MOD, and which it did not respond to. The Hall report does not conclude that single-service press officers should be reinstated, but it does say that there should be more engagement of a higher level of military personnel in the MOD press centre and the communications operation. We will act on that recommendation.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement and for his briefing to colleagues last night. We should also be grateful to Tony Hall for giving us this report on the media handling. However, I still hold the view that I have held throughout: the media handling is something of a red herring.

The Secretary of State has taken responsibility, which is right because permission for the revelations could only have been given by him or in his name. I simply seek a reassurance from him that among the lessons that are learned will not be a temptation to gag military officers from talking to the press in the course of their ordinary duties. Some of them have intimated to me that they occasionally feel that that is the case.

The Secretary of State has told us that the Fulton inquiry was thorough; I have no reason to doubt that, and I entirely understand why it cannot be published. However, there are a number of unanswered questions. We gather from the statement that there was not a problem to do with equipment or lack of helicopters, that there was not a major intelligence failure and that there was not any particular serious error anywhere in the line of command. In that case, what exactly did go wrong? Did the Royal Navy simply fail to comprehend the level of threat that the Iranians posed? If so, that was in stark contrast to our land forces in Basra and on the border, who understood only too well what the threat was—and, indeed, that has been discussed many times in this House.

The Secretary of State says that lessons must be learned quickly from the experiences of our partners. Do the other nations involved in this work use constant air cover? It remains to me unfathomable that these dangerous operations could be taking place in contested waterways without a greater degree of air cover than seemed to be available within the coalition at the time.

This report seems to conclude that everyone was to blame a bit but no one was to blame a lot. Mercifully, this turned out in the end only to be a national embarrassment; it could have been a complete disaster. Who exactly will step up to the plate and accept responsibility for what happened?

Des Browne: I will step up to that plate, and have done. I take responsibility for what happened—that is my job and my responsibility. I do not think that we will serve any purpose by seeking to identify other individuals to blame, when a perfectly professional report, carried
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out by a man of integrity, has said that this set of circumstances came about because of a combination of factors.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the situation could have been much worse, but the fact is that it did not develop into something much worse. There is some credit to be given to those who secured the return of these 15 young people much more quickly than many informed commentators said could be done, in a situation in which the Iranians did not get the public apology that they so craved for their own propaganda purposes, and in which their own behaviour and illegal activities, exposed across the region, diminished their standing in the region among those countries whom they most tried to impress by these actions.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions that I will seek to answer quickly. It is not our intention to gag the armed forces; however, they are in a difficult position. We need to find a balance between openness and risk to security. The overriding ethos of the services is the putting of the interests of the whole above those of the individual. Every single individual in the services who seeks to engage with the media takes on that challenge, which is why there is a clear and unequivocal rule that if a member of the services wishes to engage with the media, he or she requires permission so to do. Some are barred by contract from so doing, as the report reveals. This is all very sensible, but a significant degree of communication goes on between members of the armed services, the media and the public. We are not going to move back from that openness, but we will have to manage it against the various challenges, particularly those to security.

On air cover, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman details on the operating procedures of every country that operates in the Gulf, but I can tell him that they do not always board with air cover. It largely depends on where they are in the operational area, and I am not going to go into the details of that.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Because of timetabled business that will follow, may I please ask that Back Benchers now ask just a single question? A brief response from the Secretary of State might ensure that more Members are called.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my right hon. Friend for setting out the report before us today. As a member of the Defence Select Committee, I concur with the view that it is a thorough and professional report, to which is attached an action plan. Can he tell the House whether and how he will report on the fulfilling of the important milestones attached to that report?

Des Browne: I thank my hon. Friend, who is in a privileged position in the House in having had access to the Fulton report, and the other members of her Committee for taking on the responsibility of being the arm of parliamentary accountability in this unique process—unique, at least, in my experience. Exactly how we will proceed from where we are to the point of completion, at which we can draw a line underneath this issue, will be a matter for discussion between me, as the Secretary
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of State, and her Select Committee. However, I fully expect that the Committee will continue to play a role in ensuring that we see through the action plan that we have shared with it.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I am particularly grateful to the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of the statement, and the Defence Committee is grateful to him for showing us in confidence the full report by General Fulton. We will need to consider that report and the Secretary of State’s statement today very carefully indeed. If we are to be able to assure the House that the lessons learned from this incident have been fully implemented, it places a great responsibility on us and on the Government. Will the Secretary of State, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence and of the Government, pledge to work with us and to give us—in confidence if need be—all the material that, in our judgment, we shall need in order to be able to give the House that assurance?

Des Browne: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and to his Committee for taking on that onerous task, and I recognise that there will need to be a continuing relationship. He and his Committee know that where I can share information with the Committee across the range of my responsibilities, I have done so. They have always respected the confidence that the Department and I have placed in them and I welcome that relationship. I will have to consider the very specific question that the right hon. Gentleman has asked me, just as he will have to consider the terms of my statement and the report before deciding further. However, he may rest assured that that would be my aim, and if it is possible for me to do that while at the same time preserving the security of those on operations, I will see it through.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I have no doubt that the media handling of this matter was a failure and an embarrassment, but it is of secondary importance to the operational effectiveness of our forces and the security of our serving men and women in the Gulf. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision to share the Fulton report with the Defence Committee. There has been much speculation that there were two areas of failure, with first, the lack of appreciation of the threat that the Iranians posed and, secondly, a failure of communications. My right hon. Friend alluded to both in his statement. Can he assure the House that the lessons learned from this will be part of the training regime for all those who are now to be deployed in the Gulf?

Des Browne: I can give my right hon. Friend an unequivocal assurance on that point, and I thank him for his support.

Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that the armed forces personnel clearly needed training and instruction that they did not have, and that the rules of engagement were clearly wrong? Is he aware that this feeble and evasive statement cannot be the end of the matter? I, for one, as a former Chairman of the Committee that considered what became the Armed Forces Act 2006 and a member of the Defence Committee, prefer not to be excluded from consideration of this issue and intend to find ways to pursue the matter elsewhere.

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Des Browne: I of course respect the hon. Gentleman’s position as a Member of this House. In handling this report in this way, I sought to square the issue of confidentiality and the secrecy that was necessary to protect operational security with parliamentary accountability, but I recognise that I do not have the last word in relation to that. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about training, but I fundamentally disagree with him about the rules of engagement. The Fulton report contains no criticism of the rules of engagement, nor does it suggest that they were inappropriate for the operation that was being carried out. In fact, it says the contrary.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I believe that it is important to remind people that nobody died and that 15 young people came back alive. The Secretary of State has acknowledged, as he has on previous occasions, that there were mistakes and shortcomings. Surely what we need now is to draw a line under this and to implement the recommendations. Can my right hon. Friend refute the suggestion, made by an Opposition Member from a sedentary position, that we have a Mickey Mouse navy? We have nothing of the sort and that view is not shared on this side of the House.

Des Browne: I have no hesitation in accepting my right hon. Friend’s invitation to confirm the view—which almost every hon. Member and many across the world share—that the Royal Navy rightly enjoys a world class reputation. No matter how much damage anybody thinks that this one incident has done, I do not think they believe that it has changed that reputation.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): The Secretary of State must agree that this incident was a very serious operational failure indeed. If the captain of one of Her Majesty’s ships were to run it aground on a sand bank, he would be arraigned before a court martial. It seems astonishing to me that the right hon. Gentleman can come to the House with a report by General Fulton—which clearly has been staffed to death by the Royal Navy—and say that the affair is over and that we should draw a line under it. Does he accept that that shows a woeful and shameful lack of leadership and grip on his part and on the part of his Department? Will he tell the CDS that he has better things to do than take part in ill judged public relations stunts that involved welcoming back from the disaster a crew who should have spent two days at home and then been sent straight back to their ships?

Des Browne: I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman’s words will be heard by the CDS and others, and no doubt either that his plan is that they should be. I have complete faith in General Fulton’s integrity—

Mr. Soames: So do we.

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