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Finally, is it not a disturbing reflection on the operation of the offices of the Secretary of State and those of the Prime Minister that the Prime Minister did not learn of this major international crisis until he heard them through the media on Sunday? Despite the almost inconceivable incompetence of the media handling in this matter, and—as the Statement admits—other high-profile incidents, we must not lose sight of the fundamental point, which is the catalogue of problems that led to the capture of our personnel. Are the Government confident that they are taking action that will ensure that this does not simply become another high-profile incident in a future Statement?

4.28 pm

Lord Garden: My Lords, I start by expressing from these Benches our relief over the safe return of the 15 sailors and Royal Marines who were taken captive.

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That feeling is of course tempered by our sadness over the nine personnel who have been killed in operations since we last met, and our sympathy goes out to the families who have suffered losses and to those further personnel who have been injured.

I thank the Minister for relaying the Statement, which spends just one page out of the six on operational matters. But I do not intend to focus my questions on media handling and who made the decision that cheque-book journalism was the new way for the Ministry of Defence. I say simply that, along with both serving and former military colleagues to whom I have spoken in the past week, we were all astonished by the naivety of those who appear to have been involved in the decision and surprised that the Defence Secretary failed to use his political nous when needed. However, in the end, he made the right decision. The Westminster and Wapping frenzy over who knew what about payment for stories must not obscure the much more serious question of how such a catastrophe occurred in the first place, and what has happened to the reputation of our Armed Forces as a result.

When the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, made a Statement on 28 March, I deferred asking any questions about the circumstances. In a time of delicate diplomacy, the last thing needed was a row about how we got into this mess. However, now that the sailors and marines have all returned safely, we need a full examination of how Britain found itself outwitted by the Iranians. In the Statement, the Minister has announced the inquiry to be headed by Sir Rob Fulton, who I know well. I join others in saying that he is an excellent choice; I have the highest regard for him.

The Royal Navy is well practised in boarding and searching operations in many parts of the world. However, there are few areas as sensitive as the Shatt al-Arab waterway border between Iran and Iraq. It seems clear that the UK was operating within Iraqi waters and that the Iranian action was illegal. However, can the Minister explain today—not at the end of the inquiry—why the taskforce failed to foresee the risk? As the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, has said, in June 2004, six British marines and two sailors were seized by Iran in nearby waters. Although they were released unharmed after three days, their boats have never been returned, so even a casual observer knows that it is a possibility. What intelligence assessments has the Minister sat and listened to at the MoD which would have said this? Are there not procedures to take into account another threat in that area: potential terrorists in boats attacking our navy? Was there nothing to stop that, and would it not have stopped the Iranians? We could have those answers today, rather than waiting for the end of the inquiry.

So far, what we know about the tactical position seems to suggest complacency was the order of the day. While the lead ship, HMS “Cornwall”, may have been unsuitable for close in-shore operations, this was a multi-national taskforce. What were the other nations doing? Where were the support vessels, the helicopters and fixed-wing air reconnaissance to give the information?

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The sense that the problems were not anticipated is compounded by the apparent lack of training in conduct after capture for the hapless hostages. In the past, that was normal procedure. Has that stopped? Can the Minister tell us whether all personnel in the area get conduct-after-capture training? Again, the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines have seen themselves end up on Iranian television. As a result of their admissions of guilt, the reputation of the United Kingdom has sunk further in that part of the world.

A major military blunder was salvaged by diplomacy, and then ruined by a bizarre public relations exercise organised by the Royal Navy and initially allowed by the Defence Secretary. It looks as though the Ministry of Defence is joining the Home Office as “not fit for purpose”. The Statement offers a separate review about future press relations, in which there is to be an independent component. Will there be an independent figure in the Fulton review? Perhaps there will be a distinguished defence academic such as Sir Lawrence Freedman, who wrote the Falklands official history; somebody who can look from outside of the closet of the Ministry of Defence.

Will the Minister assure us that he will provide the House with a copy of the terms of reference for the Fulton inquiry, so that we know what it is going to look at? I support the call of the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, for a parallel to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee having access to the final, full report for your Lordships’ House.

Will the Minister tell us the current situation in that region for maritime border security operations? I understood that we were in the lead; if we are not doing it, who is in the lead? Who is doing it? Are the Iraqi Government content that we have now withdrawn? How long are we withdrawn for? Until the inquiry is over? For ever? What are we doing with our forces out there? Finally, will the Minister assure the House that the lessons from this shambles will be learnt by the Ministry of Defence, the Permanent Joint Headquarters and the Royal Navy, and that they will not take the Prime Minister’s advice that it is time to move on?

4.33 pm

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am genuinely grateful for the tone taken by noble Lords opposite in expressing their relief at the release of 15 Royal Marines and sailors. However, I completely disagree with some aspects of what the noble Lords said.

Given how this House generally reviews defence matters, and the cross-party support which our Armed Forces enjoy, I am sure that Members of this House appreciate the non-partisan way in which these important matters are addressed. I say that because the history of our Armed Forces is that we learn the lessons when things go wrong. Clearly, things have gone wrong in this case. My right honourable friend has implemented these two open inquiries not only into the very important operational questions to which we need to have answers but also into the media issues which have had such prominence of late. That reflects the style of my right honourable friend. In the time I have worked for him, I have seen his real

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commitment to the welfare of our Armed Forces and how he goes about making sure that things get done within the Ministry of Defence. Therefore, I cannot accept any statements which say that the Ministry of Defence is not fit for purpose. That is not the Ministry of Defence of my experience.

I do not believe that this is a humiliating Statement. When a Minister has recognised that a mistake has been made, it is right openly to say so, to put that situation right and then to implement the necessary reviews to make sure that such a thing never happens again. I believe that the media frenzy is a media storm in a teacup. It has completely overpowered the central issue, which, as set out in the Statement—which I am grateful to noble Lords opposite for mentioning—is that we got our people back. Our greatest concern was to make sure that they were well and fit, and to get them back to their families. As we saw during that process, my right honourable friends the Secretary of State, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister worked extremely hard and—I think the evidence shows—extremely effectively to return these people. A number of statements were made by them during this process. So it is not correct to say, as the noble Lord said, that there is a surprising lack of involvement by the Prime Minister during this process. He was plainly fully involved in the process of the release of our people.

I do not believe and I hope—and we shall see by the tone of the House—that this House will not make the same mistake that some people have by focusing so much on these media issues to allow them to overshadow the very important operational aspects which need to be focused on.

I have been asked a number of questions. I shall ensure that all questions asked by noble Lords opposite and any points raised by noble Lords this afternoon are passed on to the inquiry. I note the points of confidence made with regard to Lieutenant General Sir Robert Fulton. I will make sure that he addresses those questions.

There are some issues to which I can attempt to give a direct answer today. As regards foreseeing the risks, we recognise absolutely the risks inherent in carrying out these operations, as we do many of the operations which we ask our Armed Forces to carry out every day. We had operating procedures for carrying them out. Boardings by the Royal Navy, as noble Lords have said, are something which the Navy undertakes virtually every day of the week. We have to ask ourselves whether those operating procedures were adequate. In the terms of the inquiry, we will make sure that we do so. We will need to make sure that any improvements that we can make from the lessons we have learnt are implemented. We have set out the timescale for the outcome of this inquiry. I am sure that the usual channels will make sure that this House, like the other House, has a full opportunity to review the outcome of the inquiry.

The noble Lord, Lord Garden, asked whether all members of the Royal Navy receive training to deal with hostage-taking situations. They do not. But we

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have implemented action to ensure that all personnel in an operational theatre from now on will receive such training.

I will take back to the Ministry of Defence the point on the terms of reference for the Fulton inquiry. But, I can absolutely assure this House that a full inquiry will be undertaken into the events by which our personnel were captured. That will be shared with the House in the way I have described.

4.40 pm

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, in reply to the shadow Defence Secretary in the other place, Mr Browne implied that he had the support of the Chiefs of Staff. I think that that is a sensible and pragmatic view for the chiefs to take. This is not the time to be changing a Secretary of State. Extremely serious strategic issues face this country. Both CDS and CGS have commented in public about the serious overcommitment faced by our forces on two operational fronts. The situation must be strongly represented in Cabinet and the incumbent must be familiar with what is going on. A new Secretary of State would take time to get up to speed. With a change of Prime Minister, there is a possibility that a further Cabinet shuffle could take place very soon.

For those reasons, it would be wrong for the Secretary of State to resign or to be fired. I take it that he has the full support of his ministerial colleagues and I hope that that view will be represented to the Secretary of State.

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord for the points that he makes. The Secretary of State absolutely has the full confidence of the defence chiefs and his ministerial colleagues.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, is the Minister telling the House that the Royal Navy has been deterred from undertaking boarding operations by a handful of motor boats of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard?

Lord Drayson: No, my Lords, I am not telling the House that. The situation at present is that the Secretary of State is awaiting a submission from PJHQ on the precise details of when, how, and under what circumstances boarding operations should be recommenced.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: My Lords, I add my voice to that of my noble friend and of the whole House in his sympathy and condolence for those who have died in the past few weeks, their families, their friends—and those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past three years. In the light of their sacrifice and their families' agonies, is there not a danger of us scalding ourselves in cold water by focusing obsessively on the press coverage of some of the experiences of those involved?

None of us who have served as Secretary of State for Defence—six Members of this House have held that position—can have not wanted to have the perfect

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wisdom of hindsight when we took decisions, especially in relation to the press coverage of the vast department for which we had stewardship and responsibility.

Decisions have been taken in the past that were benign at the time but dramatic in their consequences. There was the decision to allow Mr John Nichol, the captured pilot in the first Gulf War, to talk to the media; the decision taken to allow General Sir Peter de Billière to publish his memoirs, especially about his time in the Special Forces; and the decision, regretted as it was, when Michael Portillo mentioned the Special Air Service at the Conservative Party conference. All of those were done in a benign context but had repercussions and I think that everyone connected with them might have wished for the wisdom of hindsight. Such things happen in the circumstances and it is right, appropriate and in the spirit of the man that Des Browne has come to make such a significant apology for his misjudgment—his temporary misjudgment—in the situation.

I very much welcome my noble friend's announcement that General Sir Robert Fulton will head the inquiry, because there are serious issues to be examined here and the Government are as interested in the answers as anyone else. Sir Robert Fulton, who served as Captain-General of the Royal Marines while I was Defence Secretary, is ideally suited to giving judgments on that, too. Throughout all this, we really must underscore the fact that our hostages got out safely and without price. That is of huge significance, which we should in no way underestimate.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, has made the point that the Chiefs of Staff today have made a statement about their confidence in Des Browne as the Secretary of State for Defence. That is an important and relevant thing for them to have done, which they will have done in good faith. This is no time for changing the political leadership at the top. It would be a grave disservice to those who continue to serve our country in areas of danger if that were to be the outcome.

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I agree with everything that my noble friend has said, and with the perspective into which he puts these matters. It is important for the House to keep media issues in perspective. It is important for us to focus on what is really important.

Lord Hurd of Westwell: My Lords, in the Statement, which the Minister repeated, the Secretary of State in the other place used the phrase “in good faith” several times, as, I think, did the Minister. That is not in question: most political blunders are made in good faith. They must, however, be recognised. The Secretary of State has recognised them in his Statement, as has the Minister today, but it is a mistake to deal with this aspect simply as if it were a “storm in a teacup”, to use his phrase. As the reports and the reactions from all over the world come in, we can see what harm this episode, and particularly the media aspect of it, has done and is doing to the profound respect which the Secretary of State mentioned that he felt for the Armed

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Forces and which we all feel. It is part of the job of the political leadership of the Armed Forces to avoid mistakes that lead to the undermining of that respect. Most of us who have had political responsibility felt, the moment we heard of this dilemma, that it was a political mistake. It is not a question of hindsight; it was clear to most people at the time that this was a bad error.

Another point is the training for captivity; when servicemen have fallen into the hands of a foreign power. I understand that it has been said that some of the 15 had such training and that others did not. Is that the position? What is the nature of that training? This is a question of fact now, not a question for a future inquiry. What questions are servicemen in that position expected to answer? What questions are they expected not to answer? And to what extent is it accepted as normal practice that they might, in certain circumstances, put their names to statements which they know or believe to be untrue? This is only part of the problem. We need a little more light on this aspect, quite independently from any decisions taken on future policy.

Lord Drayson: My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point, we need to recognise that there was always going to be huge media attention on this issue. I do not underplay the importance of media issues, but this is a question of how, in the current modern media world, the Ministry of Defence can best act in these very difficult circumstances, in which there are clearly lessons to be learnt.

The noble Lord also asked about training. My understanding is that certain members of the crew had been trained in those aspects, but certain members had not. It would not be appropriate, right or helpful for me to go into the details of what type of questions and questioning our people are expected to cope with. We do, however, recognise that this is an area in which we have to make improvements and make a change, and we have done that, so we have already taken the action that I have described in the House this afternoon; henceforth, all members of our Armed Forces who are in such operational theatres will receive such pre-deployment training.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, we are confident that our sailors were captured in Iraqi waters. The Iranians justified their action by saying that the sailors were in Iranian waters. Surely, that fact could be ascertained by experts looking at all the relevant evidence. Does my noble friend believe that all action at the United Nations by us has now been abandoned, particularly because our sailors were acting under a UN mandate, or that there may be some mileage in asking the Security Council to set up a small panel of experts to look at all the available evidence? The conclusions of that panel of experts may allow us to regain some of the ground we have lost over that sorry incident.

Lord Drayson: My Lords, if I have understood my noble friend correctly, I do not believe that he is right. I do not believe that we have lost ground internationally

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with regard to whether we were in the right or the wrong relating to the location of our personnel. We have been able to establish very clearly the location of our personnel. They were 1.7 miles within Iraqi waters and we have been able to show that evidence. That we were able to pursue these points with the international community when it was clear that quiet diplomacy would not be effective and were able to secure the release of our people in the timescale we did shows that this process had an effect.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, as regards previous questions on the action of our forces in captivity, I hope that we will not let the Iranians get away with what they did. It has been disclosed that they used threats and they cannot be allowed to get away with that. What do the Government propose to do about that?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, our policy remains the same. We will pursue diplomatic relations on a multilateral basis with the international community to put pressure on Iran. We will continue to keep this pressure up and believe that recent events show the effect of this multilateral effort.

Lord Morris of Aberavon: My Lords, I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has accepted that it was his mistake and has said he is sorry, for which he should be commended. I also welcome the fact that he has set up two wide-ranging inquiries on the two pertinent issues. In a fast-moving situation, what ministerial cover was there in the Ministry of Defence on that Thursday afternoon and Good Friday morning? Who made the decision that the submission should go to the Secretary of State only “to note” and through which Ministers or senior civil servants did that submission go?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am grateful for the points that my noble and learned friend has made in support of my right honourable friend. All Defence Ministers, as Members of this House who were formerly Ministers in the Ministry of Defence will know, are available at all times to be contacted on defence matters. In the modern world of communications and so forth, it is not necessary to be physically in the Ministry of Defence to be available as a Defence Minister.

As regards the chain of command and the way in which this decision was taken, I have nothing to add to what I said in repeating the Statement. It is important that this does not turn into a witch-hunt as to who said what to whom relating to the submission to the Secretary of State. That is not appropriate or the purpose of the review.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, first, on the media shambles, the Minister said that it will not be allowed to happen again. But if it can be prevented from happening again, why was it not prevented from happening on this occasion? Secondly, he said that we are very good at learning the lessons from these things. But British boats have been captured before in similar circumstances. Why did we not learn any lessons from that experience? Why did we have to leave it to make the same errors again?

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