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With respect to the hon. Gentleman, it did not sound like it. I have complete faith in General Fultons integrity. He prepared and owns the report, and no one else sought to influence or shape it. It comes to the honest conclusion that a combination of factors led to the unfortunate and terrible circumstances of an event that I accept ought to have been avoided. We should look forward to make sure that it never happens
again, but the House must accept that, for decades and generations, we have been asking young people to do very dangerous things in very dangerous and difficult circumstances, and that sometimes things go wrong.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): The families of the hostages from Plymouth were very appreciative of the welfare and emotional support that they received during the crisis, but there was a view that the people offering that support did not have the necessary media training. If a similar event were to happen, will my right hon. Friend ensure that family members and others are shielded from the media by people who understand the media? My constituents are also grateful for the offer from the PCC.
Des Browne: We will consider the PCC training recommendation with a view to acting on it, but I know from the reports about the families that have come back to me how grateful they were for the support that they received during the crisis. When their family members were returned, many said unequivocally that they had been well supported by the generic help that the MOD had been able to offer in facilitating help from the services. The report reveals that, when it came to helping the families, we sought to have in place an officer representing the service and a person acting as a media shield. It may be that both should operate in the same chain of command, and be given support with their media skills. That seems to be the recommendation made by Hall, and I intend to see it through.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): When I used to serve, a long time ago, the operational chain of command was always clear. I hope that it is still clear now, as it meant that people in command took responsibility when something went wrong. With respect to the Secretary of State, I maintain that we cannot move on until the people who made the mistakes in this instance are seen to take responsibility for them. I urge the right hon. Gentleman not to pretend that he can defend them. The people in the operational chain of command know what they were up against. If they have failed, they should take the responsibility for doing so.
Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has made a calm, dignified and comprehensive statement to the House. Rightly, it was apologetic in parts, and I think that all reasonable people will thank him for that. However, when the smoke has cleared and we have moved on from issues to do with matelots and iPods, some questions will remain. Is my right hon. Friend entirely convinced in his own mind that the information that we had at the time about the map co-ordinates was correct, and that the Coventrys landing craft were not operating in Iranian waters?
Des Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for his support. There is no doubt that HMS Cornwall was operating in Iraqi waters and that the incident itself took place in Iraqi waters. Indeed, people will recollect that in the early days the Iranians provided us with a set of co-ordinates, and asserted that was where the event took place, but when we told them the co-ordinates were in Iraqi waters they changed that set and found one in their own waters. I do not think that even they sustain the position that the incident took place anywhere other than in Iraqi waters.
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): The Secretary of State rightly pointed out that the Navy is renowned for generic training and multi-skilling, which, of course, underpins the lean manning of warships. Does he accept that the headlong rush towards lean manning of warships is in part responsible for the lack of specialist skills that General Fulton identified?
Des Browne: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not accept that. Boarding parties have always been made up of people with other specialist skills, specifically trained for that job. If there is a failure of training, it was in the specific training of nominated people for boarding, who would in any event have had other specialist skills. I know of no Navy in the world that carries boarding parties who are specialists only in that; I do not think they exist.
John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I commend my right hon. Friend for the buck stops here attitude he has shown. Will he assure me that the witch hunt sought by some Members will not happen and that our servicemen and women will be supported not only by him but by the MOD in ensuring that their jobs are safe and that they can get on with the job they are being paid forputting their lives on the line for their country, as they do? They should be commended for everything they do.
Des Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Because the CDS instructed the report from General Fulton in operational terms, I did not seek to put any qualification on that. In relation to the media-handling side, I was adamant to the House that I was not instructing a review that was intended to be a witch hunt. It was intended to identify what happened, the lessons that needed to be learned and how we could move forward, which is exactly what I intend to do. It is a coincidence that the Fulton report comes to a similar conclusion in that regard, but General Fulton supports the conclusion in his report with an analysis of the facts.
Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab):
I welcome the fact that there was no equipment failure, the commitment to learning from mistakes and my right hon. Friends assertion that the rules of engagement were right for the task. I spent several years in the nuclear industry, in a communications department, where I witnessed press officers working in difficult circumstances. The best press officers have media experience and a media background, as I hope my right hon. Friend will
agree, so will he assure me that he will consider people with a press background when looking for media support in the future?
Des Browne: I welcome my hon. Friends advice but, with respect, I do not think it would be appropriate for me to give her that assurance from the Dispatch Box, or we may end up before an industrial tribunal in future in relation to applicants for other jobs.
There are different ways of getting experience in dealing with the media. Given the society we live in, people who never thought the media would intrude in their way of life find increasingly that they need the skills to deal with the media. As I understand it, in relation to augmenting the press part of our Department, the principal lesson from the Hall report suggests that we need people with a degree of service experience and I intend to act on that.
Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): Does the Secretary of State believe that the report has implications and lessons for our coalition partners, and will he ensure that they are fully briefed with the details of the report?
Des Browne: One of the interesting aspects of the operational reportthe Fulton reportis its recognition that it is important always to bear in mind the fact that we are operating as part of a coalition. It is our intention to share the lessons with our coalition partners and, indeed, we have already taken steps to do so at CDS level.
Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): The poor training and discipline of the boarding party have been admittedthis work is to be undertaken in future by expert teamsbut by stepping up to the line, the Secretary of State has done no service to the Navy. It is frankly unbelievable that he has not told the House who was responsible for that poor training, what rank they held and whether they are serving at home or abroad. Will he now give us that information?
I know that the hon. Lady is an assiduous student of issues in relation to defence, and
particularly the security of our operations and the safety of our armed forces. I commend her for the work that she does in that regard, but she may well have misunderstood the information that I have given the House.
On training, the recommendation is that we continue to do the world-class generic training that we do for the crew of ships as we deploy them, on the basis that ships are deployed for nine months, that they are quite often diverted to do quite diverse things when they are on deployment, and that the generic training has served us well for a long period. However, that ought to be augmented by some specific training, particularly in relation to boarding, if that is likely to be part of the function of a ship when it is deployed. There is no question of chasing responsibility for someone not having done that in the past.
I do not accept that there was a failure of discipline. I am not going to sit here on these green Benches or stand here at this Dispatch Box and judge these young people on their behaviour in circumstances that I have not experienced. The last time I came to the Dispatch Box, I said that experts in interrogation assured me that their behaviour was well within the bounds of what was permissible and acceptable in relation to their responsibilities. I can do no more than repeat that to the House.
Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Will the Secretary of State take it from me that those of us on the Defence Committee will not be party to a whitewash, that we have heard the anger in the House, and that we are aware of the mockery to which the Royal Navy has been subjected by sea shanties being updated? Will he undertake to ensure that there will be no attempt by the MOD to prevent senior serving officers from appearing before our Committee?
Des Browne: I assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be no attempt by my Department to prevent the Select Committee from carrying out the task which they have agreed to accept, and to a degree which I have charged them with.
Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You may have seen that Mr. Ijaz-ul-Haq, the religious affairs Minister of Pakistan, is reported to have said the following about the award of a knighthood to Salman Rushdie:
If someone exploded a bomb on his body he would be right to do so, unless the British Government...withdraws the sir title.
Mr. Goodman: The point of order is this, Madam Deputy Speaker. Those remarks can reasonably be read as incitement to terrorism in Britain. Have you had any notice that Ministers are prepared to come before the House to say whether they have demanded that the Government of Pakistan disassociate themselves from Mr. Ijaz-ul-Haqs pro-terror remarks, and have condemned them unreservedly?
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con):
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, about ministerial accountability to Parliament. On 15 May, the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform sent me a letter stating that he proposed to close the Christchurch Jobcentre Plus office, to enable his Department to provide a better service to the residents of Christchurch than it had been able to provide up to now. I then tabled a priority written question for answer on 23 May, asking the Minister to explain how closing the jobcentre would provide a better service. I received a holding reply. I was
concerned about the delay in getting a substantive response. My office phoned the Ministers office and was told that the answer had been on the Ministers desk and that he had sent it back so that a fuller and more helpful response could be given. That response is now available, but it does not answer the question one iota.
The Minister told me in a letter that closing my local jobcentre will improve life for my constituents, but, when I asked him, he said that this was a matter for the chief executive of Jobcentre Plus and that he does not accept any ministerial responsibility. How can we hold such a Minister to account in the House?
Madam Deputy Speaker: The occupant of the Chair has many responsibilities in the House, but Ministers responses to Back Benchers are not one of them. If the hon. Gentleman, who is experienced, is having some difficulty, I suggest he go to the Table Office to get advice from the staff there.
Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I know that staff in the Speakers Office and other officials in the House have for some time been trying to address the blight of the encampment outside Carriage Gates. I shall not address that situation directly, but it has been put to me that, on several occasions, megaphones have been used outside Carriages Gates to broadcast foul and abusive language when young children have been present. I have asked the police in the Palace whether they wish to take action and I have been informed that they have asked the Metropolitan police from outside the House to attend [ Interruption. ] This is a very serious issue. These people are addressing young peoplewhom we want to encourage to visit the Houseusing foul and abusive language and the police have refused to attend to deal with the situation. I wonder whether the House can make a representation to the Metropolitan police to ensure that, if people break the law outside the House, all action is taken against them.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to promote the improvement of all council homes and estates; to provide for the building of new council housing; to promote equal financial treatment between local authorities and registered social landlords in the provision of affordable housing; to reserve certain rents and capital receipts for direct investment in council housing; to provide for the protection of rights to life-long secure tenancies and of tenants from involuntary changes of ownership and management; to further regulate and make requirements of registered social landlords; and for connected purposes.
Next Wednesday, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer will take over as our new party and national leader. He told the Amicus conference yesterday that he plans to review housing policies, and I hope that my modest measure will help to inform that process. Our nation faces growing housing problems that can be met only by building new, and improving existing, council housing, and by having a fair financial balance between local authorities and housing associations in the provision of affordable housing.
Since 1997, fewer than 1,800 council houses have been built in totalin contrast to an average figure of well over 180,000 each year in the decades following the election of the Attlee Government. Despite a great cost to the taxpayer and an enormous loss of accountability, the private sector, including registered social landlords, has built at an annual rate of only 15,000 homes in the past 10 years. It has proved to be incapable of dealing with the increasing overcrowding and homelessness in many parts of our land; only a renaissance in public sector construction can do that.
There is a strong national consensus on the matter. Some 3 million tenants, 1.6 million households on waiting lists, trade unions and councillors of all parties are agreed. The six candidates for the Labour party deputy leadership have said that we must have a new housing policy and three successive party conferences have voted to encourage and finance direct investment in council housingthe fourth option. It is the purpose of the Bill to provide a legal framework for that fourth option so that it can be an addition to, or a replacement for, the current three options, which are all seriously defective.
The option promoted most enthusiastically is stock transfer to a registered social landlord, which, in law and practice, is privatisation disguised under the thinnest of veneers. Legally, housing associations are private companies and they borrow directly from the private market. RSL board members are often paid, banks are in the driving seat, and executives are on inflated pay scales, funded by soaring rents from hard-pressed tenants. Councils that are trying to coerce or bully their tenants into stock transfer will claim that the Governments rent convergence formula ensures that rents will increase by the same amount whether tenants transfer or not, but in reality that formula is worthless. New tenants can be pitchforked up to the target rent immediately, service charges are not included and the valuation method can and will be manipulated to generate much higher rents.
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