HC Deb 26 January 2004 vol 417 cc5-8
4. Mr. Ben Chapman(Lab) (Wirral, South)

What assessment he has made of equipment provision in relation to Operation Telic. [150156]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

The Ministry of Defence's report on Operation Telic, "Lessons for the Future", closely reflects the conclusions of the independent report by the National Audit Office that the logistic effort for the Operation was huge and key to success and that

key equipments…performed well". Both reports recognise that there are areas for improvement. This includes, in the logistic area, developing a more robust in-theatre asset-tracking system.

Mr. Chapman

It has been suggested that Sergeant Roberts might not have been killed in action in Iraq had he been wearing enhanced combat body armour. I know that that matter concerns my right hon. Friend and is under inquiry. When was such equipment first procured for the armed forces? How many sets have been issued?

Mr. Hoon

The version of enhanced combat body armour currently being used by the armed forces was first put into service as long ago as 1992, when approximately 32 pairs of ceramic plates were issued. Two sets of plates are required for each soldier. Those issuing enhanced combat body armour issued plates consistently in the order of 4,000 for each year of operation until 1999, when some 22,000—almost 23,000—were issued. Most recently, in 2003, more than 80,000 pairs of ceramic plates were issued.

Annabelle Ewing(SNP) (Perth)

The Secretary of State will be aware that the regimental headquarters of the Black Watch are in my constituency. What does he have to say in response to the very serious statements issued by senior officers of the Black Watch last week, to the effect that there were serious problems with the supply of adequate protective equipment?

Mr. Hoon

I read that particular article carefully, as I am sure the hon. Lady did. It indicated a considerable success in the logistic effort, set out by the commanding officer conducting the interview. It also indicated that all the soldiers in question had at least one set of nuclear, biological and chemical equipment. Moreover, given her close knowledge of the Black Watch, perhaps she is aware that it declared itself ready for combat—that is, ready for action—a full seven days before the regiment crossed the line.

Mr. Eric Joyce(Lab) (Falkirk, West)

Does my right hon. Friend remember the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), when he was a Minister in 1995, saying: There will always be kit

deficiencies; there are always things that the services need to do their job better."—[Official Report, 16 October 1995; Vol. 264, c. 115.]? Does he agree that today the armed services are better equipped to carry out their tasks than ever before?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend has considerable relevant recent experience. It is certainly the case that when he was Minister of State for the Armed Forces, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) said that there would always be deficiencies in the provision of equipment. That is not something that the Government accept. It is not the case that we will always recognise that there will be deficiencies. We will continue to try to improve the equipment available to the armed forces.

Mr. Nicholas Soames(Con) (Mid-Sussex)

While the whole House will wish to congratulate the armed forces on their brilliant performance in Iraq, does the Secretary of State agree, given that the principal reason for going to war in the first place was to rid that country of chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction, that it is extraordinary to find at figure 6 of part 3 of the National Audit Office report that the NAO inspectors discovered that the 7 Armoured Brigade armoured vehicles did not have viable Nuclear Biological and Chemical defence filters fitted throughout the warfighting phase of the Operation."? Is that not a wholly unacceptable failing by the Government?

Mr. Hoon

I have the report open at the page cited by the hon. Gentleman. The paragraph begins: Although overall protection against chemical agents was good there were shortfalls. That is precisely the position that the Government have set out consistently since the operation began. The conclusion was, however, that the overall protection against chemical agents was good. The hon. Gentleman has to explain how it is, given that conclusion by the NAO, that he persists in misrepresenting the position for a great majority of soldiers.

He knows, or he should know from his experience as a Minister and, indeed, in the armed forces, that provided that individuals are issued with appropriate kit, which was the position, that is satisfactory protection against an NBC threat.

Mr. Soames

It is clearly not the case that adequate protection was provided for those in the 7th Armoured Brigade, and in Challenger tanks and other armoured vehicles. It is a mercy that they were not attacked with chemical weapons. Sir Kevin Tebbit, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, admitted to the Public Accounts Committee last week that the military decision to order extra equipment was taken in late October, but that political permission was not given until 25 November. What was the cause of that unacceptable delay? Was it the Secretary of State who caused it, was it the Chancellor, or was it the Prime Minister?

Mr. Hoon

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, as the permanent secretary said when giving evidence to the Committee, the Government were concerned to ensure that overt preparations did not in any way compromise the diplomatic effort to pursue resolution 1441 through the United Nations. That is not to say that earlier preparations had not been made once the Prime Minister had told the House at the end of September that it was necessary to prepare our armed forces for the prospect of a conflict.

Mr. Dennis Skinner(Lab) (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, notwithstanding the fact that I voted against the Falklands war, the Iraq war twice and all the rest of them, I find it preposterous that people such as the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) should talk about the Secretary of State for Defence being responsible for every single death while there is a war on? If that had been the case in the past, Churchill would have been hung, drawn and quartered in 1915, Thatcher would have been a figment of everybody's imagination—

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Colin Breed(LD) (South-East Cornwall)

I accept that there were problems and that the Ministry of Defence is learning the lessons and putting some things right, but I find it difficult to accept that much of the time Ministers said at the Dispatch Box that everything was fine. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether he was or was not told of the supply problems? If not, why not? Who takes responsibility for such tragic failures?

Mr. Hoon

I will not trouble the House with a long list of the statements that I have made about those issues. Suffice it to say that on 14 May last year, some two weeks after the end of combat operations in Iraq, I made it clear that there were bound to be shortcomings in the issuing of equipment but that, overall, operations had been a remarkable success. I repeated that in Defence questions in September, and I said the same sort of thing again in December. That is borne out by both the MOD's lessons learned document and the independent NAO report. That is an absolutely consistent picture. We are not saying that there were not difficulties; we are saying that, overall, it was an outstanding logistic and military success.

Ms Dari Taylor(Lab) (Stockton, South)

This Government have appointed a Chief of Defence Logistics and implemented a total assets visibility project. If that project and a senior member of the armed forces had not put together an effective structure and process for the deployment and use of equipment, what else should we have been doing?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the successes that have been achieved. Equally, I recognise that one lesson, for example, that we must learn is how we improve the in-theatre asset-tracking system. That was part of the reason for not being able to identify the precise location of a small amount of the equipment that was in theatre but could not reach front-line forces in time.