Select Committee on Defence Fourth Report



1. On 23 March 2007, 15 Royal Navy personnel (eight Royal Navy sailors and seven Royal Marines) from HMS Cornwall—a Royal Navy Frigate, deployed with the Coalition Task Force in the Northern Gulf—were captured by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard while conducting a boarding operation on a merchant vessel in shallow waters near the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, between Iraq and Iran. They were taken to Iran, paraded before the international media and detained until their release and return home on 5 April. On their return, the Royal Navy staged a press conference for some of the detainees: two of them subsequently sold their stories to the media.

2. On 16 April 2007, the Secretary of State for Defence, Rt Hon Des Browne MP, made a statement to the House of Commons, announcing that he had appointed Lieutenant General Sir Rob Fulton RM (retired), Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Gibraltar, to inquire into the operational circumstances and factors leading to the capture of the Royal Navy personnel. He said that, because the inquiry would consider operationally sensitive material, it would not be possible to publish all the conclusions, but they would be presented to the Defence Committee in full.[1] We commend the Secretary of State for Defence for volunteering to expose the Ministry of Defence to parliamentary scrutiny on this matter.

3. The Secretary of State also announced a separate review of the media handling.[2] It was subsequently announced that this would be carried out by Tony Hall, the Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House and formerly the BBC's Director of News and Current Affairs.[3]

4. Following the completion of Sir Rob Fulton's report, we were given a classified briefing at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) on 18 June 2007. The Secretary of State announced to the House of Commons on 19 June 2007 the broad conclusions of the Fulton report. He confirmed that the report was classified, because it addressed operational and tactical issues, but had been "shared with the Defence Committee to ensure proper parliamentary accountability". The Secretary of State also announced the key conclusions of the Hall inquiry.[4] Unlike Fulton, the Hall report was published.[5]

Our inquiry

5. To be asked to conduct an inquiry in secret, and to report on matters which we cannot make public, is highly unusual. While we had some reservations about conducting scrutiny on terms of the Government's choosing, we agreed on 19 June 2007 to hold an inquiry. The purpose of our inquiry has been:

6. Given the security classification of the Fulton Report, it was not possible to hold an inquiry in public. We held an evidence session in private on 17 July 2007 with the Chief of Joint Operations, Commander in Chief Fleet and Flag Officer Sea Training. We found this first evidence session deeply unsatisfactory. The witnesses appeared surprised by the nature of the questions we asked, and were unable to explain to us the chain of events which had occurred prior to the capture of the HMS Cornwall hostages.

7. We made it plain that we expected a better response to our inquiry, given the Secretary of State's assurance that there would be "proper parliamentary accountability". This led to a significant change in attitude by the MoD. Both the Secretary of State for Defence and the Chief of the Defence Staff underlined their personal commitment to ensuring that we received all the information we required. We subsequently asked the MoD for a full chronology of events, and answers to a range of questions in writing, and received a very thorough response on 22 October 2007.

8. We received an informal private briefing on the implementation of the MoD's action plan from the Chief of the Defence Staff, the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, and the First Sea Lord, at Westminster, on 20 November 2007. We held a second formal private evidence session with those same witnesses on 4 December 2007.

9. We found the MoD's initial response to our inquiry inadequate, and sensed that the Department had not anticipated that we would pursue an inquiry in depth. But, following our strong response, the MoD responded positively to our inquiry and has been helpful both in providing full answers to our questions in writing and in offering high-level briefing. We believe our inquiry has sharpened the MoD's response to the Iran hostage incident.

The Fulton report

10. The Secretary of State told the House of Commons on 19 June 2007 that Sir Rob Fulton's report could not be published "because it addresses operational and tactical issues, which cannot be discussed in public without increasing the risk to our forces". He called the report "impressively thorough" and outlined some of the points it covered. He said:

11. The Secretary of State said that the Fulton Report had identified some shortcomings:

  • there were faults in the Coalition's shared procedures;
  • the UK "must improve our ability to identify and assess the risks that this complex environment generates, and to train and posture our forces accordingly";
  • improvement was needed in the handling of intelligence, in communications, in doctrine, and in training—both individual and collective;
  • in particular, there needed to be improvement in training for particular tasks, including boarding, and specialist teams should be deployed for this task;
  • there needed to be better information sharing with other nations operating in the area.

The Secretary of State said that an action plan had been drawn up and a number of measures already taken, allowing the recommencement of boarding operations in April.[7]

12. While we found the Fulton report very helpful in understanding the various contributory factors that led to the incident, it alone would not have allowed us (or anyone else reading the report) fully to understand the sequence of events or their significance. It was only after the MoD released a significant additional tranche of information—in October 2007—that we were able to reach a conclusion on whether Fulton's recommendations, and the subsequent action plan, were appropriate. Our evidence session in December focused on ensuring that the MoD had fully taken onboard the criticisms made by Fulton, and that it was giving priority and resources to implementing the action plan.

13. The decision not to publish the Fulton report has led some people to conclude that the whole thing was a whitewash. We can assure the House that this is not the case. The Fulton report was robust in identifying serious weaknesses, and recommended a range of remedial actions. The Government immediately drew up an action plan for implementing these recommendations, and has made good progress towards discharging the actions.


14. The Secretary of State told the House of Commons in June that

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 which could be exploited by Iran. His conclusions suggest that there is no case for disciplinary action against any of those involved 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.[8]

15. There has been a perception that the Fulton report let people off lightly, and that someone should have been held to account for the errors made. It is true that the Fulton report did not blame individuals: it identified broader, organisational, weaknesses. We were told that the MoD had taken legal advice, which indicated that there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction on a disciplinary charge. However, we were assured that administrative action had been taken against a number of individuals, at different levels in the chain of command. Administrative action is a serious matter, which can have a major impact on an individual's subsequent career. The perception that everyone has been let off scot-free for the Iran hostage incident is ill-founded. Whilst it was decided that there were insufficient grounds for courts martial, formal administration action has been taken against a number of Service personnel across a wide spectrum of ranks.

16. On the other hand, we were told that no action had been taken against individuals, military or civilian, for failings relating to media handling. Given the catalogue of serious mistakes made, we think this is unacceptable. We return to this matter in paragraph 21 below.

Organisational weaknesses

17. While it is important that individuals should be held to account, it is more important that the MoD—and the Permanent Joint Headquarters and the Royal Navy in particular—should address the serious problems exposed by this episode. While security constraints prevent us from making public the exact nature of the weaknesses identified, it is public knowledge that there were weaknesses in intelligence, in communications, in doctrine and in training. There was a lapse in operational focus in the front line, and a widespread failure of situational awareness.

18. We have reviewed the MoD's action plan in response to the Fulton report. We are satisfied that, provided all of the many recommendations are implemented, the MoD will have significantly reduced the likelihood of a recurrence and addressed the weaknesses identified by Fulton. Many of the actions have already been completed, but we intend to monitor progress and shall expect the MoD to report to us when all of the actions have been discharged.


19. The Secretary of State told the House that Fulton had concluded that the event was not the result of equipment or resource issues.[9] We accept that a lack of resources was not the direct cause of the events of 23 March.

20. We are concerned to ensure that the MoD's current budgetary uncertainty does not impede the implementation of the action plan. The Chief of the Defence Staff has assured us that the resources are in place to enable implementation of the action plan.

Media handling

21. The Hall report was published in full on 19 June 2007. The key conclusion was:

We have not been able clearly to identify a single person who in practice took the decision to authorise payment, or a clear moment when that authority was given. That lack of clarity on who was authorised to decide, on who should decide, and on how the decision was taken, is in itself potentially one of the main lessons from the episode. This was a collective failure of judgement or an abstention from judgement, rather than a failure of judgement by any one individual. Many people were consulted or involved, but very few took a clear view, and nobody clearly took control of the issue. Many people could have said no, and nobody did.[10]

22. The Secretary of State for Defence told the House that he had accepted the Hall report's recommendations in full.[11] Because it is in the public domain, we have not given the Hall report the close attention in this inquiry which we have given to Fulton. We note that the Foreign Affairs Committee considered the media handling in its report on the Foreign Policy Aspects of the Detention of Naval Personnel by the Islamic Republic of Iran, published on 22 July 2007.[12] It is clear that the decision to allow the Service personnel to sell their stories was a serious mistake and deeply damaging to the reputation of the Royal Navy. The Secretary of State for Defence has accepted responsibility and apologised.[13] This should not absolve others from blame.

23. The MoD has provided us with a progress report on its implementation of the recommendations in the Hall report, which had been seen and agreed by the Service Chiefs of Staff. This is published as an appendix to this report. The MoD reports that it has clarified its regulations regarding public communication and contact with the media for both military and civilian personnel; and has made clear that payment is not acceptable where individuals are speaking or writing about their work or experience derived from their service. It also reports that it has increased the involvement of the military in media handling by giving the three single Service Assistant Directors of Public Relations formal responsibilities for news issues, and has increased the military component of the Defence Press Office from three to six, out of 27.[14] While we continue to have concerns about the MoD's media operations, we note the progress made in implementing the Hall recommendations and particularly welcome the decision to increase military involvement in media handling.


24. The Fulton report, and the evidence provided to us in support of it, contain a depth of operational detail which it would be damaging to make public. This makes it difficult for us to demonstrate openly the grounds on which we have reached our conclusions. However, we assure the House of Commons, and the public, that we have scrutinised the report thoroughly, and have obtained extensive additional evidence from the MoD. We have written to the Secretary of State for Defence with a number of classified conclusions and recommendations. While the hostage-taking exposed worrying weaknesses, action has been taken to address them. The incident was a national embarrassment, deeply damaging to the reputation of the Royal Navy. It has, however, provided the spur to remedy major weaknesses.

1   HC Deb, 16 April 2007, cols 23-26 Back

2   Ibid. Back

3   HC Deb, 24 April 2007, col 21WS Back

4   HC Deb, 19 June 2007, cols 1255-1258 Back

5   Report by Tony Hall on Review of Media Access to Personnel, 19 June 2007, available at Back

6   HC Deb, 19 June 2007, cols 1255-1256 Back

7   HC Deb, 19 June 2007, col 1256 Back

8   Ibid. Back

9   HC Deb, 19 June 2007, col 1255 Back

10   Report by Tony Hall on Review of Media Access to Personnel, para 48 Back

11   HC Deb, 19 June 2007, col 1256 Back

12   Sixth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2006-07, Foreign Policy Aspects of the Detention of Naval Personnel by the Islamic Republic of Iran, HC 880. Back

13   HC Deb, 16 April 2007, col 26 Back

14   Ev 1 Back

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Prepared 14 December 2007