Ministry of Defence Annual Report and Accounts 2007-08 - Defence Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Questions 129-139)


12 NOVEMBER 2008

  Q129 Chairman: Secretary of State, welcome to the Committee. You have appeared before the Committee before jointly with the Foreign Secretary but this is the first of your appearances in front of the Committee alone and you are most welcome. I have to say that I always think that the inquiry we do into the Report and Accounts is probably the most difficult one for the witnesses to deal with because we can and do cover everything across the board. For you to be faced with this inquiry within your first month as Secretary of State does not mean that we will be kind to you, but we recognise the Herculean nature of the task that you are faced with. As it is your first appearance in front of the Committee talking in a general sense, I wonder if I could ask you please to give us a general idea of what your own personal priorities are likely to be in your new department over the next 12 months. How are we to judge you? The division has given you about 15 minutes' respite. You have some warning of what it is you are going to be facing. I will adjourn the Committee.

The Committee suspended from 2.33pm to 2.53 pm for a division in the House

  Mr Hutton: I think it is right that my focus should be on operations so my priorities are Iraq and Afghanistan and the necessary decisions that need to be made to sustain success on both of those very important operations. There are some equipment issues to deal with of course; there are some people issues to do with that and that is self-evident too. Given the scale of the operations the Armed Force are currently undertaking it is right and proper that my focus should be first and foremost to help continue to ensure success on those two very important operational deployments.

  Q130  Chairman: How will we judge whether you have succeeded?

  Mr Hutton: It will not just be my view, it will be the views of the military commanders and the guys on the ground. I understand that the Committee itself has a regular quarterly report summarising some of the issues that arise from the deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will be important, however, to be transparent, to be straight with the Committee, the House and the country about the state of deployment in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The country has the right to challenge both the tactics and the strategy that underpin those two very important deployments and I would want people to say of my time as Secretary of State that I was as straight as it was possible to be with the Committee and with the public about the status of both of those operations. It is in no-one's interest to present a picture that is not anything other than 100% accurate about the state of play in both Iraq and Afghanistan and I want to make sure that that happens at all times.

  Q131  Chairman: My own impression was that you made a good start with your speech on Afghanistan.

  Mr Hutton: That is very kind you. If you could write to me about that it would be very welcome! Joking aside, actually it is a very serious subject and I think it is first and foremost the responsibility of ministers who made the decision collectively with members of the House to deploy our forces to Afghanistan and Iraq to be regular in the reports we make and to be straight with the country about why we are there. Given many of the headlines and many of the complicated messages that sometimes surround a deployment, particularly in Afghanistan, it is important just to keep reminding people about what the basic mission is all about and I intend to continue to do that.

  Q132  Chairman: The Armed Forces, as the Ministry of Defence tells us, are operating above the level for which they are resourced and structured and have been doing so for a long time. How do you intend to deal with that? What do you intend to do about it?

  Mr Hutton: I will try to answer that question in several bite sized chunks. I think it is true to start with that we have been operating outside the framework of the planning assumptions that governed how we generate force structures and so on. That is true; everyone knows that. It has been true, actually, in each of the last five or six years. I think it is an amazing tribute to the men and women that we have in uniform that they have been able to do the job that they have done and many of the other jobs we ask them to do simultaneously as completing some of these very dangerous missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Next year we will see a very significant change in mission in Iraq and that I hope will produce some operational relaxation in the tempo under which our Armed Forces are operating and that will be pretty welcome. In the context of Afghanistan I do not want to speculate about force numbers or redeployment to Afghanistan today; I do not think that would be very sensible. I made clear when I gave evidence to the joint session (the two committees) a couple of weeks ago that I think a first call on any such assets would be helicopter assets because there is a recognised shortage. Again, with the indulgence of the Committee, I will not go into the numbers of helicopter assets that we are talking about here but I think a Merlin fleet could play a very useful role in Afghanistan. On the money side of it—obviously the other chunk that has to be digested here—I think in historical terms the MoD has a good settlement. We are continuing to see overall levels of spending on defence continue to rise but I think it is quite clear as well in the context of the spending review that the Ministry of Defence is going to have to improve its level of performance in the context of value for money, in terms of reducing administrative overhead costs both in the department and all the way through the organisation. We have some very challenging tasks ahead of us to do that. I think the key contribution in relaxing some of the operational pressure will be if and when we are able to make a significant draw down in Iraq which I hope will take place in the first half of next year. Then we will have to see exactly what our advice is about re-deployment, if any, to Afghanistan. There are some very big issues to be decided there. Of course we will make sure the Committee and the House are as fully informed as it is possible for them to be about all of this. Ministers have made it quite clear and the Prime Minister has made it very clear that before any significant troop redeployment took place to Afghanistan there will be a proper statement in the Houses and I think that is right.

  Q133  Chairman: I do not know whether you lie awake at nights, but if you were to lie awake at nights and you had a list of things you were worrying about, what would be at the top of it?

  Mr Hutton: Right now it is the safety, security and well-being of our guys in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan. That does cause me and many others to spend a considerable amount of our time making sure we have covered all the basics there and continue to do whatever extra needs to be done. Guaranteeing success in those two missions is absolutely at the heart of what the Ministry is focussed on. We have probably had many discussions in this Committee and elsewhere in the House with all of us together privately and sometimes in public about the nature of these missions. Although I am quite aware of some of the doubts members of the Committee have about aspects of the tactics and maybe even the strategy, my view I am afraid is very simple, that we must succeed in Afghanistan. It is vital to NATO, it is vital to our national security. That is what my priority would be and if there is anything that keeps me awake at night it is that.

  Mr Hancock: Good afternoon, Secretary of State. I am sure everybody in the room shares your view that we have to get the right decision and the right solution for Afghanistan. I share your view that it is important to clearly identify to the public and remind people why we are there. At the same time the public are continuously being told that the government of Afghanistan has no real mandate across the country, that the government is full of corruption and it is very hard to see how a military solution that does not deal with the corruption inside Afghanistan itself and the confusion over whether or not we can tackle the drug trade properly can ever bring about the solution that you and I would both want. Is there going to be a change of policy? Is there going to be an initiative which is actually going to give the British public confidence that your ambition can be realised?

  Q134  Chairman: I will allow that question, Secretary of State. Please give it a brief answer because I do not want to go over the ground again that we went over in the joint session with the foreign secretary.

  Mr Hutton: Again in the context of Afghanistan I think it is quite important that we do not over-egg the pudding. Afghanistan has never been characterised as having a strong central government. That is the first point. At least this government has a democratic mandate. I accept it does not run in every part of Afghanistan and that is because parts of Afghanistan are affected by the Taliban-al-Qaeda insurgency. That is what our guys are there to try to contain and eradicate. We are making progress there; it is slow, painful, costly but necessary. On the political side I think I would say that we have worked very hard with President Karzai's government and we continue to provide maximum support at all levels for the work that he and his Ministers are trying to achieve in Afghanistan. Part of his own objectives—which he has re-stated very clearly recently which I think is very important—is to bear down on corruption, to support a greater effort against the narcotics trade which is the poison right at the heart of the Afghan society which is feeding the insurgency which we have to deal with. We are prepared to stand by the president and support his administration in making progress in these areas, but progress there has to be. That is something, I can assure the Committee, that we are very, very heavily focussed on.

  Q135  Mr Crausby: Secretary of State, you have taken over a department that only met in full one of its six PSA targets and even more worrying on the objective two target—be ready to respond to the tasks that might arise—that target was not met. Are you surprised by how poorly the MoD has performed against these targets? What is your initial assessment of why the MoD's performance against its PSA targets was so poor?

  Mr Hutton: I do not think anyone in the MoD is happy that we only fully met one of the six PSA targets. We are not delirious about our performance at all. What is the best argument I can put forward today to the Committee about that level of performance? I think it is a pretty good one actually in the context of where we are. My view, the view of the department, the view of the military chiefs certainly is that the overriding objective, the absolute number one objective for the department is to successfully deploy and maintain those deployments successfully in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have tried to supply the Committee with information about those deployments on a regular basis. We can say to the Committee and to the country that those deployments have been successful. We have sustained a very complicated military and civilian effort in both Iraq and Afghanistan for many, many years and we have produced some significant results. I think my argument to you is that we need to do better; we are trying to do better. Some of those PSA targets were not exclusively within the realm of competence of the Ministry to deliver on its own; some of them were shared with other government departments; some of them depended on the performance of other interlocutors. If we are talking about the Middle East peace process, for example, which is one of the sub-targets in PSA two or three then I hope people can cut us a bit of slack on failing in the time of this Annual Report to actually deliver peace in the Middle East. I hope there is a balance around the table about some of these targets. Some are more straightforward than others. On the equipment side for sure we need to do much better: value for money, cost overruns, delivering some of the strategic equipment needs of the Armed Forces. We have to do better. I am not actually going to apologise to the Committee today for the department making, during the course of the last 12 months, operational success its number one priority; that is the right and proper thing.

  Q136  Mr Crausby: I think that is fair. The objective one target was met and that is a most important target. However, it is the future that we are a little bit worried about to say the least. Your Permanent Secretary told us last week that there may be a bit of institutional over-optimism in the MoD's forecasting of performance against its PSA targets. How will you ensure that the MoD performs better against its new Departmental Strategic Objectives (DSOs)?

  Mr Hutton: I take responsibility for the performance of the department and am not trying to duck that point. My Ministers and I will be focussed very heavily on the DSOs in the next 12 months or so, making sure that processes within the department are focussed on delivery. I think there is an obvious case, particularly in number two around equipment and the issue of personnel, readiness, recuperation, manning levels where we are very strongly focussed on seeing if we cannot make a better fist of it next year. That is not in any way a criticism of my predecessor who I think was a very fine and decent Secretary of State, but I think some of these difficulties, particularly on the equipment and manning side—again it may not be the best defence but it is worth putting on the record—have concerned every Minister since time immemorial in the Ministry of Defence. We have with us today a very distinguished former Minister in the department and, if he was able to—I am sure he would not want to—he himself could bear testimony to how difficult some of these issues are. The other observation I would bring to this Committee today is that if there was a magic lever or wand or button to press in the department the Chairman would have found it, his predecessors would have found it; we would have found these problems solved a long time ago. The simple truth is that there is not a magic wand. We are focussed on trying to improve our performance and we are going to do the best we can over the next 12 months.

  Q137  Mr Crausby: The Q1 report on DSO 2, be ready to respond to the task that might arise, says, "No progress—Readiness to for contingent operations declined". The first measure of progress against DSO 2 is no change.

  Mr Hutton: That is absolutely true; I am not going to argue with that. Again the reason for that failure to make the headway we would have liked there, to give the Armed Forces a greater level and range of response capabilities, is because of our focus on Iraq and Afghanistan. The Chairman was absolutely spot on ten minutes ago when he said that we are operating outside the box; we are. This is what the consequence of that is. Does it mean that we are not able to respond to any type of contingent request for UK forces? No, it does not, but it has shrunk the scale of that readiness. Am I happy with that? No; none of us should be happy with that. However, I am afraid it is a consequence of operating way beyond the parameters that the planning assumptions specified for the department. That has been true, as I said, in every year since 2002. I believe things will begin to look better next year because of the likely draw down of forces in Iraq and I think we have to make sure that one of the things that comes out of that change is more of a breathing space to allow some of the recuperation that I know the Committee is concerned about to take place. Exactly how much of that of course will depend on decisions that we and our allies make about the level of appropriate forces that should be deployed in Afghanistan but, as I said, I do not want to speculate about that. One thing I am pretty clear about is that we have to seize the advantage of that drawdown to give ourselves more of a breathing space to allow training to cover a wider range of functions because the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force have been focussed very heavily on those two operational deployments. We have to give ourselves that space in which to take on some of the smaller scale peace keeping roles that maybe at the moment look harder for us to do but it will take time. We are simply not going to be able to build up the sort of responsiveness and readiness levels that we would all like instantaneously come the middle of next year. That is not how things work out but I think we can begin to turn a page on this issue next year. We have to seize that as a gain for the men and women who serve our country in uniform because if we go on with the current level of operational deployments indefinitely then I think the consequences will be very significant indeed and I do not want to contemplate that today.

  Q138  Mr Jenkin: Secretary of State, you have said laudably that you want to be as honest as you possibly can be and we are not holding you personally responsible for some of the difficulties you are discovering in your department, but are you not rather shocked by some of the things you have found in your department?

  Mr Hutton: No, I am not shocked. I have taken a close interest in defence for a long period of time and what I discovered when I came into the department was pretty much what I expected. If I can be really straight with the Committee, the things that have surprised me are the extraordinary men and women that we have working for the Ministry and our country in the Armed Forces. I was a fan of the Armed Forces before I came into the Ministry, but I do not think there is an adjective now that I could use to describe what I feel about them today. That has surprised me; I did not think I would be as surprised by that as I was. Operationally we have some very significant challenges to face and certainly some of the detail of that I do not want to share in public today but I would be very happy to try to share more of that detail in private with the Committee. I do retain, I think, a strong sense of confidence in both operation missions and an extraordinary commitment to delivering success in the department.

  Q139  Mr Jenkin: Do you not feel, as many people now do feel, that first of all there has been a deliberate act by the government to leave the Ministry of Defence relatively short changed in view of the commitments it has over a period of years, a deliberate act of policy? Secondly, the government is relying on the goodwill, professionalism and dedication of our Armed Forces perhaps to an unreasonably degree.

  Mr Hutton: I disagree with the first part of that question. I do not believe it is a fair or reasonable criticism to make of the government. We have tried to correct the tide of previous spending on the MoD and actually turn it round so that the MoD can look forward to real—

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