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Volume 459: debated on Monday 16 April 2007

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about operational events over the recess.

Before I start, I know that the whole House will want to join me in expressing my condolences to the families and friends of the nine servicemen and women who have lost their lives since the House last sat.

On 1 April Kingsman Danny Wilson and on 2 April Rifleman Aaron Lincoln were killed by small arms fire while on patrol in Basra city. On 5 April Second Lieutenant Joanna Yorke Dyer, Corporal Kris O’Neill, Private Eleanor Dlugosz, Kingsman Adam Smith and their interpreter were killed when their Warrior vehicle was hit by a massive bomb west of Basra city. On 13 April Private Chris Gray was killed in Afghanistan in a firefight with the Taliban, and on Saturday night two servicemen were killed when two UK helicopters collided north of Baghdad. An investigation is ongoing, but all the evidence so far indicates that that was an accident, not an attack.

Several personnel were seriously injured over that period in those and other incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan and they, too, are in our thoughts. That is a reminder of the risks faced every day by our forces on our behalf. I offer our gratitude and profound respect for those who have died and those who have been injured in the service of their country.

I am sure that the House will wish me in the time available to focus on the incident that has attracted the most public and parliamentary attention over the recess, namely the incident in which 15 of our personnel were captured and detained by the Iranians, and the events that followed. I will describe, first, the incident itself; secondly, how it was handled diplomatically; and thirdly, how it was handled in media terms, including the decision to allow serving personnel to talk to the media individually and to accept payment for so doing—decisions for which, as I have already made clear, I accept responsibility. Finally, I will set out how we intend to learn the lessons for the future.

Let me first turn to the incident itself. On 23 March HMS Cornwall was operating as part of the Coalition Task Force in the northern Arabian gulf, under the authority of a UN resolution. The task force is responsible for a range of maritime security operations, including protecting the Iraqi oil infrastructure and undertaking boardings to disrupt weapons smuggling.

At 07.53 Cornwall launched two boats, with a Lynx helicopter in support, with the intention to board MV Tarawa, a merchant vessel that had evaded a boarding the day before. En route, the Lynx flew over a different vessel, MV al-Hanin, and reported a suspect cargo. A decision was made to board the al-Hanin. The position was well inside Iraqi waters.

The boarding team boarded the vessel and, at 08.46, the Royal Marine boarding officer reported the ship secure. The Lynx was tasked to return to Cornwall. By 09.00 the helicopter was back on board and put at 30 minutes’ notice to fly.

At 09.04 one of the two Royal Navy boats reported Iranian Revolutionary Guard navy activity nearby. Very soon afterwards, one of the boats reported that the Iranians were “beside them”. By 09.06 voice communications with the boats were lost, and shortly after, all communications were lost. At 09.28 the Lynx was launched again and returned to the position of the al-Hanin. Initially it was unable to find the UK boats but at 10.05, one was spotted being escorted by Iranian vessels.

That concludes what I can say about the operational details. I am happy to answer questions, but there is not much more to say at this stage, until investigations are complete. I will say two final things. First, the Royal Navy is not currently conducting boarding operations, although coalition partners are, and the Navy continues to fulfil its other tasks. Secondly, I support the decision of the Royal Marine captain to order his boarding party to lower their readied weapons. As he put it, he judged that, if they had resisted,

“there would have been a major fight, one we could not have won, with consequences that would have had major strategic impact”.

Let me turn now to the diplomatic handling of the incident. The Iranians detained our personnel illegally, taking them first to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval base, and from there to Tehran. We made it clear, both directly to the Iranians and in public statements, that their detention was unacceptable and that they should be released immediately. We made intense diplomatic efforts to establish direct lines of communication with Iranian leaders, to prevent the situation from escalating and to resolve it quickly. It became clear that this alone would not be enough, not least because of the internal struggles within Iran as to who had control of the situation. We therefore galvanised the international community to put pressure on the Iranian regime. The Prime Minister has rightly paid tribute to those friends in the EU, in the UN, and in the region who supported us and condemned the illegal detention. I am in no doubt that this focused minds at the top of the Iranian regime.

Our personnel were released on Wednesday 4 April, after a predictable attempt by the Iranian President to turn it into a propaganda victory. But this should fool no one. Serious observers do not believe that Iran has emerged from this in a stronger position, and we should remember that our main objective—the peaceful resolution of the incident and the safe return of our people—was achieved, earlier than many predicted. And let me be clear: there was no apology, and there was no deal.

Let me turn now to the media handling of this incident. On Thursday 5 April, the 15 personnel arrived in the UK, and were debriefed and reunited with their families. The next day, six of the 15 held a collective press conference, organised by the MOD, which was uncontroversial. The controversy surrounds the relations between individual personnel and the media. The media had approached the families of the detainees while they were still being held in Iran. There were many offers of payment. These approaches intensified as soon as the 15 were released, and it was clear that the pressure would soon be transferred from the families to the individuals themselves. They were already aware of the criticism of their behaviour while detained, and some were intent on setting the record straight.

This left us with a dilemma. We had a duty of care to the individuals and their families, who were under intense pressure. On the Thursday, all those involved took the view that we should allow the individuals to talk to the media, and that we should support them through that process. I believe that all those involved in this decision acted in good faith and out of a desire to protect the individuals, to protect the service, and to protect operational security against the risks inherent in unofficial dialogue with the media. These were real risks, which have materialised in the past.

Once the decision had been taken to allow the individuals to talk to the media, this raised a second question: how to handle the fact that the media were competing for these individuals by offering substantial sums of money. This second question was considered by the Navy over the same short period. The Navy concluded that payments were “permissible” under Queen’s Regulations, and that in this particular situation it was “impractical to attempt to prevent” them. This was the position presented to me in a note sent from the Navy’s HQ in Portsmouth to my office on Thursday afternoon, and which was put to me on Good Friday. I accept in retrospect that I should have rejected the note and overruled the decision. The circumstances were exceptional, and the pressure on the families was intense. The Navy’s decision was made in good faith, and so was its interpretation of the regulations; but I should have foreseen that that attempt by the Navy, in good faith, to handle an exceptional situation would be interpreted as indicating a departure in the way in which the armed forces deal with the media.

Over the weekend I discussed the issue further, and on Monday I asked for further advice from naval chiefs and the Chief of the Defence Staff. I decided that we must review the rules immediately, and stop any further media payments to serving personnel until the review was complete. I informed the Prime Minister—which, as he has made clear, was his only involvement in this matter—and announced the decision in a statement.

Let me be clear to the House: I made a mistake. I have been completely open about that. To the extent that what happened between Friday and Monday has caused people to question the hard-won reputation of the armed forces, that is something I profoundly regret; but I remind people that precisely because that reputation is hard won, it is not easily undermined.

Those are the facts as I know them. Let me now turn to what happens next. I made clear on Monday the implications for the specific issue of serving personnel receiving payment—I made it clear that it must not happen again—but clearly there are other lessons to be learned from the whole incident.

The first aspect relates to the operational circumstances and factors leading to the capture of the 15 personnel. This was an unusual situation with wide and far-reaching consequences. To reflect that, I can announce that the Chief of the Defence Staff has appointed Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton of the Royal Marines, currently the Governor and Commander in Chief of Gibraltar, to lead an inquiry. As a retired former commander of UK amphibious task forces, he will bring both expertise and objectivity to the inquiry.

The inquiry will cover all operational aspects, including risk and threat assessment, strategic and operational planning, tactical decisions, rules of engagement, training, equipment and resources. I expect it to take around six weeks. Clearly those conducting the inquiry will consider operationally sensitive material and it will therefore not be possible to publish all the conclusions, but they will be presented to the House of Commons Defence Committee in full. I am committed to ensuring that Parliament and the public have the full facts, but also—which is just as important—to ensuring that the Ministry of Defence and the services learn from these events and do not let this happen again.

In a similar spirit and in the same time frame, I can also announce that I will be asking a small team to take over the review of the media handling which I started last week. The team will consist of a senior officer and a senior MOD official, both unconnected with these events, and will be led by an independent figure with wide media experience. The review will draw on all relevant experience, not just this particular incident but other high-profile incidents involving personnel on operations.

I want to make it clear that the review is not a witch hunt. As I have already said, I take responsibility for this particular case. Rather, the review will seek to identify lessons and make recommendations on how to manage the complex issues involved. It will make recommendations on how to balance our duty to support our people with our duty of transparency, our duty to protect the reputation of the services and, most important, our duty to protect the security of our personnel in a demanding media environment.

I take responsibility for what happened last weekend. I have acted to put it right. I have acted to ensure that we learn the lessons of the whole episode, in a manner that allows full parliamentary scrutiny. As we go through that process, we should remember the most important point—which is that we got our people back safe, and on our terms.

Let me begin by fully associating the official Opposition with the sentiments expressed by the Secretary of State about the nine servicemen and women who died serving our country. Our thoughts and prayers will be with their friends and families, and the whole country should be proud of and grateful to them.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, but like all Members, I deeply regret the circumstances that made it necessary. The statement goes to the very heart of our democratic system, because it poses the question “What are politicians responsible for?”.

No one expects the Secretary of State for Defence to have day to day knowledge, far less management, of naval manoeuvres in the Persian gulf, but the wider picture is a different story. It is only three years since naval personnel were illegally abducted by Iranian forces. It should never have been allowed to happen again, especially as the threat from an ever-more belligerent Iranian regime has increased rather than decreased.

How can it be that the incursion of Iranian forces was not detected by air or by the ship’s radar? If it was detected, why was it not communicated to our sailors and marines? If communications were lost at 09.06, as the Secretary of State said, why did it take until 09.28 for the Lynx helicopter to be relaunched? Perhaps more importantly, do we even have the right naval configuration now in the northern gulf? If the northern waters are too shallow for HMS Cornwall and if we still need to protect Iraqi oil installations and carry out searches on shipping in the gulf, should we not have more, smaller vessels to supplement the activity and properly protect our personnel?

I note that there are other countries continuing their UN duties of searching shipping in the gulf. I believe that the decision to stop the Royal Navy boarding shipping in the light of this incident sends exactly the wrong signals about our resolve and intention.

We welcome the announcement of an inquiry, but we want an assurance that there will be a chance for the whole of the House of Commons to debate its broad findings, not just the Defence Committee, for this is an issue of great national importance. As the shadow Foreign Secretary said yesterday,

“It has undermined the reputation of our armed forces at home and abroad”.

Or, as The Sunday Times put it,

“Nations with unfriendly intentions towards Great Britain will have observed this latest episode with interest.”

Countries are inclined to take risks if they detect a lack of resolve. Does no one in the Government actually feel responsible for the national humiliation that we have suffered at the hands of the pariah regime of Iran?

But even if Ministers do not feel responsible for that, they cannot avoid the direct responsibility for the second fiasco; the media handling of the return of the captives. The eventual return of the captives, welcome as it was, was not a shock and the shambles around the media handling is unforgivable. The Government initially excused the decision—[Interruption.]

The Government initially excused the decision to allow stories to be sold on the basis that there was excessive media pressure and that stories would come out anyway. Yet we now know that the Press Complaints Commission offered to help the Government in preparation for this matter in advance but were snubbed by the Government. The Government initially told us, repeated by the Secretary of State today, that this was a decision for the Navy. But we know that that is not true. The Defence Council guidelines, published in 2004 after the death of David Kelly, state that for those seeking to deal with the media on national issues, authorisation should be obtained from the chief press officers in the directorate news organisation. Queen’s Regulations clearly state:

“Normally permission to express views on politically controversial issues will be refused. For any exceptions to this rule, the Director of Information Strategy and News will seek the prior approval of the Secretary of State for Defence.”

Queen’s Regulations also state that

“If there is insufficient time, the invitation should be refused.”

Does not that make a mockery of the Secretary of State’s version of events? He says that he was asked to note the decision. The truth is that he is asked to make the decision, as Secretary of State. He said that, over the weekend, he was not content with the analysis and he did not think that the Navy was either. Given that neither was content with it, why did it take almost 72 hours for the policy to change? The Secretary of State said previously that Downing street was not aware of the decision until the Sunday. Yet the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Foreign Secretary and I were all aware on the Saturday. How can that be true? Is not the truth that the Secretary of State went back to his constituency without fully appreciating the importance of the decision he was making, and is not that the greatest indictment of all?

What I find most unbelievable is that a decision to allow stories to be sold could be taken without understanding the impact that that would have on the Army, the RAF and large parts of the Navy. For those in the Army in particular, which has taken the bulk of casualties and fatalities, to see unharmed naval colleagues profit financially caused anger, injury and offence. The hurt done to the families involved can only be guessed at. It was best summed up by the mother of one of those whose bodies were returned to the United Kingdom last week. She said:

“If you are a member of the military, it is your duty to serve your country. You should do your duty and not expect to make money by selling stories.”

In a more honourable time in politics, the resignation of a Secretary of State who had overseen such a humiliating fiasco on his watch would have been an inevitability. The Secretary of State said that he took responsibility, but the word “sorry” never passed his lips. When Argentina invaded the Falkland islands 25 years ago, no one believed that that was the fault of Lord Carrington. Yet he and his team resigned because it happened on their watch and they believed that the buck stopped with them. For them, that was a matter of honour.

We have asked a number of detailed questions of the Secretary of State. On the basis of his statement today, I believe that his position is becoming untenable as he cannot command the necessary confidence in his political decision making. That confidence is essential to the belief, morale and strength of our armed forces. His colleagues must make their own judgments. Ultimately, so must he.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks in relation to those who have been lost while the House has been in recess. He speaks for all Members in what he says on that.

Anybody who has been following the hon. Gentleman’s comments over the past week could be forgiven for not being absolutely clear as to what his position is. Members will remember that initially he was accusing me of orchestrating this entire episode for propaganda purposes. A couple of days later he was complaining that precisely the opposite was the case—that I did not orchestrate the episode at all. Clearly, those claims cannot both be correct.

Many things have been said and printed over the past week. Some of them have been true and some have been untrue, but I have made my position clear throughout. I have described to the House my involvement in this process—and, indeed, also the involvement of the Prime Minister. I have said that I made a mistake. If that caused people to question the hard-won reputation of the armed forces, I deeply regret that.

It will, of course, always be the case that the hon. Gentleman will be able to find a word that I have not used, but it seems perfectly clear to me that I have expressed a degree of regret that can be equated with an apology and if he wants me to say “sorry” then I am happy to say sorry. It is possible to come up with any number of questions, but what is important is that we focus and learn from these circumstances. I intend to do that, and to get on with the job.

The hon. Gentleman also questions whether I have the confidence of the armed forces. He and others will need to ask the armed forces that for themselves. I can say that they should do so because I have confidence as to the answer that they will receive.

On operational issues, the hon. Gentleman raised a number of questions. In my statement, I made the point that because of operational security there is a limit as to how useful or appropriate it would be to debate such issues. In particular, he asked questions about why the UK has not recommenced boarding operations. Currently, advice is awaited from PJHQ—permanent joint headquarters—as to where, when and how those operations will be recommenced, and until I receive that advice, no decision can be made.

On the other issues raised, I suggest that they are precisely those that the inquiry should, and will, look at. I hope that Members were clear from the description in my statement that this inquiry has the right scope and is led by an officer with the right expertise and objectivity to ensure that the issues are looked into properly, to ensure that Parliament gets the answers it deserves and, most importantly, to ensure that we learn the lessons for the future.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for notice of it. I echo his words of condolence in respect of the nine servicemen who have lost their lives and those who have been injured. The media coverage of this sorry affair has been a national embarrassment and the judgment that it would be right to allow those people to sell their stories has hardly been vindicated by the sort of reports that we have seen of one in particular complaining that he had had his iPod taken away and that his Iranian captors had called him Mr. Bean. That is not something that has covered the nation in glory around the world. The House will note that the Secretary of State has accepted some responsibility for those judgments.

The greater issues that need attention, and the questions that need to be asked now, relate not to the media coverage but to the original incident itself. Why was there inadequate cover? Why did the helicopter go back to the boat? Why, given that we are part of a coalition, were no other air assets available to help? Why were no other boats on hand? I understand that HMS Cornwall could not go in, but there are many craft between a RIB and HMS Cornwall. Why was no other support available in the sea? Following the previous incident, what sort of risk assessment had been made, and what lessons were learned?

Those are the sort of questions that the Secretary of State tells us will be addressed by the inquiry. We note that that has been set up by the Chief of the Defence Staff and is to be conducted by a former head of the Marines. Would it not be a valuable addition to have some political input, perhaps from Privy Councillors with relevant experience in that area.

It is those questions about what happened on 23 March that need to be answered and which should determine the fate of the Secretary of State for Defence. It would not be right for him to resign his post over the media coverage of those events while the Prime Minister and Cabinet who led us into the most disastrous foreign intervention in 50 years remained in post.

I do not intend to be drawn into a discussion that involves us sitting here, in the comfort of these Benches, and criticising the behaviour of young people whom we have asked to carry out a very dangerous job in dangerous circumstances—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] The hon. Gentleman asks several very pertinent questions and he is right that those are just the questions that the operational inquiry will have to consider. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to suggest questions for the inquiry, I would welcome that. I can assure him, from my conversations with the chiefs of staff—and in particular with the Chief of the Defence Staff—that it is already the intention that the terms of reference of that inquiry will reflect the broad range of questions that the hon. Gentleman poses. In passing, I should say that we will publish the terms of reference of the inquiry once they are settled.

The hon. Gentleman invites me to consider adding someone from a political background to Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton, who is an eminently qualified person to carry out an operational inquiry, given his distinguished career in the Royal Marines and his own significant experience of operations. That would be entirely inappropriate. It is important that the operational matters are investigated by and recommendations made by people with the appropriate experience and expertise to do that. I cannot think of anybody from a political background who would add anything to those necessary ingredients.

Since the shadow Secretary of State for Defence mentioned the offer from the Press Complaints Commission to advise the 15 young service people who were risking their lives for their country but were totally inexperienced in dealing with the press, can my right hon. Friend say whether the PCC cited the example of a public servant—the chairman of the PCC—who as ambassador to Washington broke every rule in the book in selling his story to the press? There was no PCC investigation of that.

Somewhat surprisingly, in the short e-mail received from the PCC no mention was made of the issues that my right hon. Friend raises. However, the offer should be seen in its proper context and in its terms. I am grateful to the PCC, which helpfully reminded the MOD on Thursday 5 April that it was on hand to help, should the need arise. That was the actual offer. As a matter of fact, early on, the MOD had put in place comprehensive plans to ensure that each family was properly protected from media intrusion, and that protection, which is part of our duty of care, continues. Our media minders report that, despite the media pressure on the families, to date none of the 15 service personnel or their families has complained about media harassment. I remind Members that the rules of the PCC require the commission to satisfy itself that any complaint has first been dealt with by the editor of the newspaper involved before the PCC can take and exercise its jurisdiction.

The Secretary of State must appreciate that one does not have to be partisan to conclude that he has presided over a trinity of national embarrassment. He has already announced a public inquiry into the apprehension of the service personnel. He has apologised for the media handling, but he has not so far commented on the third national embarrassment—that certain of the service personnel, when they were apprehended and paraded on Iranian television, chose to apologise for their behaviour and for the fact that their country had—[Interruption.]

These are matters of grave public importance, because in the past service personnel have constantly been instructed as to what they should do when they find themselves in the hands of the enemy. Is the Secretary of State taking action to discover whether those service personnel were given proper instructions as to how they should behave, and will he try to ensure that in future, so far as it is within the power of his Department, British service personnel do not give unjustified apologies that merely embarrass not only the Government but their country?

As I have already said, I do not intend, from the comparative comfort of this place, to get into criticising the way in which young people behaved in circumstances of which I have no experience. However, that said, I accept the broader points that the right hon. and learned Gentleman makes. I can assure him that all but one of the service personnel involved were given the appropriate training, as far as I am aware. I am advised that that is the case; all but one of them was given appropriate training in how to conduct themselves in those circumstances. However, the people who debriefed the personnel, who have the interrogation expertise to make this judgment, have told me that in their view those young people deported themselves and behaved well within the bounds of appropriate conduct in the situation in which they found themselves. I am not in a position to make that judgment on their behalf, but I accept the judgment made by those with the expertise. In my view, there is no legitimate criticism to be made of those young people and I do not accept that the way in which they conducted themselves and the way in which they were opportunistically exploited by the Iranians for propaganda purposes causes any embarrassment to this country.

My right hon. Friend will be very aware that both Faye Turney and Arthur Batchelor are my constituents, so I was in close contact with the media during the course of their detention. Indeed, the media were camped outside a number of homes in my constituency and it became clear from my conversations with those people that they believed that the stories had already been sold before either Faye or Arthur left Tehran.

My right hon. Friend spoke about reviewing the regulations and ensuring that service personnel cannot sell their stories. How could the Government have controlled the leaking of stories via a third party? Clearly, the families were under the most pressure, so what specific support was given to the families: was it one-to-one, or did the families have to ask for it?

The specific support given to the families was the responsibility of the Royal Navy. Members will recollect that on the day the detainees were released, almost every single family expressed through the media its deep gratitude for the support received from the MOD and the Navy. These matters are continually kept under review to ensure that we are in a position to support families that find themselves in these very difficult circumstances. We can say with a degree of satisfaction that that part of the support passed without incident and certainly without controversy.

My hon. Friend puts her finger exactly on one of the complicating factors that created the difficult circumstances in which those who acted in good faith made the decision and interpretation of the regulations that they did. The view was taken—I understand this—that these stories would be told and that the likelihood was that they would be told in an uncontrolled environment where there would be some danger of risk to operational security. In my view, there can be no controversy about the decision to support the young people to tell their stories—just as the decision to support the young people who gave the press conference was the right decision to ensure that no operational risks would take place. The controversy arises from the issue of payment for those accounts of events, which is exactly what I have asked the review to look into. I will act on the recommendations of that review.

On behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, I associate myself fully with the Secretary of State’s expressions of condolence.

Many of us believe that the Secretary of State should have declined to accede to the MOD request immediately he received it. Does it not presuppose a problem with military discipline? Should he not have gone back to the top brass and told them to remind the young people of their obligations and order them not to speak to the media?

I have admitted my mistake in relation to that matter and the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question can be seen by my actions subsequently, when I did just that.

The Foreign Office and other parts of the Government who secured the release of our people from unjustified detention should be congratulated. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] However, those people in the United States and elsewhere—the neo-cons—who wanted to create some kind of military confrontation out of this crisis were not providing good advice. Will the Government continue to work in a measured, diplomatic and calm way to deal with the very difficult problems presented by this disgusting regime in Iran and its manipulation of the media? This will surely not be the last of the attempts by the Iranians to win propaganda victories. The reality is that we face very serious problems in that region and so does the rest of the region and the rest of the world.

As I have said before at the Dispatch Box, in my view Iran represents a strategic threat to the region by its behaviour, not least given the evidence that elements in Iran are interfering in Iraq, as well as the relationship with Hezbollah and, indeed, with terrorist and insurgent forces in Palestine. My hon. Friend is quite right that Iran has to be made to face up to its responsibilities. The Government’s efforts have concentrated on working with the international community, with our partners in the region and with others whom we worked with to secure the release of the detainees, and we will continue to do just that to ensure that the Iranian Government face up to their responsibilities.

All the real losers in this sorry business are the men and women of the Royal Navy, who are hanging their heads in shame, as one of them said to me yesterday. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will ensure that the media inquiry looks at the reasons why, unlike the Army, the Royal Navy continues to refuse to have a permanent, professional media-trained staff to handle this sort of incident? Given that that has been the responsibility of the Second Sea Lord from start to finish of this sorry business, can the right hon. Gentleman confirm whether or not the Second Sea Lord has offered his resignation?

I have no evidence to suggest that the absence of that skill at that level in the command chain in the Navy contributed to the circumstances. It will, of course, be a matter that may come out in the review, in considering the support that individual services need to support their people in this modern media environment. I have no intention of discussing the status of the Second Sea Lord. As far as I am concerned, today is about my accountability to Parliament, and I have accepted my responsibilities.

My right hon. Friend may have anticipated having to endure a heavy barrage this afternoon, but from my perspective, it seems as though most of the shells were blank and all of them singularly ill-aimed. Does he agree that, while hell hath no fury like a tabloid editor outbid by a rival, those very editors would surely have been constructing headlines along the lines of “Hero hostages gagged” if they had not been allowed to speak? May I ask my right hon. Friend, in continuation of the calm, sober and dignified statement that he has made to the House this afternoon, to leave this matter to Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton, to concentrate on his vital task as Secretary of State for Defence and not to be further distracted by this irrelevance?

My hon. Friend, in his own inimitable style, puts his finger on part of the complexity of the environment that we now live in. In particular, supporting young people and their families in that environment if they are exposed, as these young people have been, to such newsworthy events is a significant challenge, and part of my responsibility and part of my intention, as I continue to lead the MOD, will be to ensure that we put in place the support that is necessary to ensure that we can protect our young people, to the extent that we can, from the complexity of those challenges and support them through the difficulties in which they might find themselves in future, because the one thing that is certain is that, as operations continue, the pressure on people to sell their stories to the media will continue.

Is the decision to return the Lynx from the area of the boarding party the standard operational procedure for air support for such boarding operations? Why was HMS Cornwall—a batch 3 Type 22 frigate equipped to carry two Lynx helicopters—deployed in that war zone with only one Lynx helicopter?

Having a helicopter observe a compliant boarding was not required by the standard operating procedures. The Lynx was available and was used for the initial stages of the operation, in line with previous experience. Once the boarding party was aboard, the Lynx was tasked to return to the Cornwall. The helicopter did not remain above the al-Hanin not because of the availability of helicopters, but because operational procedures did not require it to remain. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question about why the Cornwall was deployed with the resources that it has is that that followed the assessment of the resources that would be needed to do the job.

My right hon. Friend was quite right to come to the House at the earliest opportunity to give us an account of what happened in Iran. In all the fuss over the last week about the sale of the stories to the media, one fact seems to have been forgotten: our naval personnel were seized illegally and in an act of provocation by Iran, and their release was secured only by the success of British diplomacy. After my right hon. Friend’s statement, Britain’s best interests would be served by all of us condemning Iran for its action and reaffirming our support for the men and women of the British armed forces—the finest armed forces in the world—who deserve our backing as they continue our struggle in the middle east.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his contribution. We should not forget that Iran detained our people illegally and that as a result of bilateral and multilateral pressure it was forced to return them without any form of deal and without the apology that the Iranian Government craved to save face. While the events of the last 10 days have not been satisfactory, they do not change the fundamental position. The Iranian Government know that they lost this propaganda war and so do the other countries of the region.

The Government’s position seems to be that shallow-draft fast patrol craft cannot safely be deployed to the Gulf because they lack air assets, but given that Cornwall’s Lynx helicopter, on this occasion and for whatever reason, appears to have been as useful as a chocolate fire-guard, will the Minister revisit his decision to dispose of three minor war vessels that are tied up alongside in Devonport, pending the outcome of his review?

As with all military operations, the use of one capability over another involves a trade-off. As the hon. Gentleman points out, smaller vessels would inevitably not have many of the capabilities of HMS Cornwall and vice versa, which may have been relevant depending on the scenarios that we were dealing with. This is certainly an issue that the inquiry will consider—I will ensure that it does. I know that the Chief of the Defence Staff wants it to be one of the issues that the inquiry will consider. It is clear that minesweepers are not the answer, because they lack the speed required and are too lightly armed for this work.

I consider the Secretary of State a man of the highest integrity and of considerable humility—a quality that is missing too often in the House. He has said that he is sorry and we should leave it at that. Since the Navy does a very useful job in Iraq in patrolling the coast and protecting the oil infrastructure of the country, and in preventing smuggling, will he assure us that that operation will continue with our full backing?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her opening remarks. I appreciate them greatly. Coming from her, they are all the more valuable to me. It is our intention to continue to make a contribution to the taskforce that carries out those maritime operations in the north Arabian gulf. I have visited one of our ships out there to see how important that work is. There has been a concentration on one aspect of their work in the House today, and understandably so, but substantially the Cornwall is there to protect a really important part of the Iraqi oil infrastructure: the oil terminal. That is why the Cornwall, and ships of that class, are the appropriate ships to be there: because of the nature of the work that they need to do. We should not forget that, on occasions, 85 per cent. of the GDP of Iraq comes out through that terminal. It is crucially important to the economic welfare and development of Iraq. It is not our intention to abandon that very important work that we currently carry out with the United States and the Australians, as well as with the Iraqis themselves.

The sad long list of names that the Secretary of State for Defence read at the beginning of his statement demonstrates that, while the House talks about sailors selling stories, soldiers face death and danger on a daily basis on the streets. Yet still they do not have the correct armoured vehicles in which to patrol and they expose themselves to unnecessary danger from Iranian weaponry and munitions. When will those soldiers get the tools to do the job?

I respect the hon. Gentleman’s views on these matters because of his experience in, and contribution to, our armed forces. He regularly engages with me on such issues and knows my commitment to ensuring that we live up to the undertaking of giving our commanders what they need to do the job on the ground. He also knows the advances that we have made in the past 12 months on getting additional protected vehicles in place, especially in southern Iraq. However, the experience of the attack on the Warrior makes it very clear that the type of device that is being deployed against our forces is such that it is unthinkable that we could find an armoured vehicle that would stand against that and with which we could do a job. As he knows, this is about not just vehicles, but tactics, intelligence and other operational requirements. As events over the weekend have shown, all those things have improved exceptionally in Basra. Our troops there are literally fighting back against the risks with significant success.

As far as I am concerned, we should be packing their bags and bringing them all back home. However, may I ask the Secretary of State a question about the Royal Marines who were captured? They never went running to the press like the Royal Navy did, so were there different orders for the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines?

I am sure that my hon. Friend knows that both the Royal Marines and the seamen are members of the Navy, so the same rules applied to both. The decisions that people made in relation to the offers available were a matter for them. I do not have the detail of who was offered what, and even if I did, I do not think that it would help the question of my accountability to the House to discuss such issues.

My hon. Friend’s views about our operations in Iraq are well known. It is my intention that those who serve in our armed forces in Iraq will come home as soon as possible, but that will be when the conditions are right and we can say that the Iraqi forces are able themselves to address the threat that continues to exist in that part of the world.

Should the Secretary of State have been more mindful of the thousands of the people in the armed services, including special forces, and in the intelligence community who have to accept the discipline that they do not talk to the press about their work? They are helped in doing so if the rules are clear and undermined if stories are sold. There are many difficult decisions that the Secretary of State has to take, but surely, given the predictable outcome, this was not difficult.

People should be clear that the same Queen’s Regulations apply to all three services. It was to ensure that there was not differential interpretation of the regulations in the future that I structured the announcement that I made on Monday in such a way.

The news management of returning detainees is nothing new, as anyone who read John Nichol’s account in yesterday’s edition of The Observer would know. When he returned in 1991, he was told:

“ministers have decreed that former PoWs will attend a mass press conference and relate their experiences”,

whether they wanted to or not. He wrote that a few days later “someone changed their mind.” I do not need to remind people that the Ministers in 1991 belonged to the so-called honourable Conservative party—I do not recall hearing calls for resignations. Of course, what has changed is the climate, because we now have mobile phones that can send pictures instantly. Will the new regulations that my right hon. Friend will introduce take such new technology into account?

That is part of the changed circumstances that will be addressed by the review. Without any great furore, we are regularly treated to the broadcasting on our media of film that has clearly been taken on mobile phone cameras by serving personnel in the heart of operations, and nothing like such concern has been expressed about that. Perhaps, just as the whole of the 1991 episode revealed, it is long overdue that such issues are addressed in the way in which I have set out.

The Secretary of State has said that he is awaiting a signal from PJHQ in respect of the recommencement of boarding operations. Is that something for him to note, or to decide?

We will restart boardings when PJHQ has reviewed the operational environment and has issued further direction on exactly when, where and how such operations should take place. My understanding is that that matter will come to me for decision.

I realise that one or two Conservative Members are former cavalrymen, but there seem to be far more hon. Members looking down on the situation from very high horses. It seems likely that some parts of the Queen’s Regulations will be examined, but does my right hon. Friend agree that, whatever the regulations eventually state in black and white, it is essential that senior officers and Ministers have fair room to exercise their proper judgment?

As someone said from a sedentary position, that is a good question. It is true that the inflexible application of regulations sometimes results in inappropriate outcomes. However, a far more important part of the lesson of last weekend is that clear consistency regarding the interpretation of the regulations is needed across all three services. I am determined that that will be achieved. It is important that those who serve in the armed forces know exactly where they stand and that there is no doubt about whether they should be required to resist the sorts of payment that were put in front of those young people.

What we cannot escape is that we endured an operational humiliation at the hands of Iran, followed by a self-inflicted humiliation for the reputation of the Royal Navy at the hands of its own board. These wretched events are symptomatic of a collapse of the covenant between the nation and its armed services. The Secretary of State must give serious consideration to whether in the present circumstances, having given the apology that he has given to the House, he is the right person to try to repair and put that covenant back together.

The hon. Gentleman exaggerates in several respects. First, not all operations are successful. As senior military officers often say to me, in the vocabulary that he will recognise, “the enemy get a vote”. That is why we need to review the operation and those of a similar nature to ensure, to the extent that it is ever possible to do that, that what happened does not happen again. However, I do not accept that the operation was a humiliation for the Royal Navy.

On the hon. Gentleman’s other point, the people must judge my record in the whole of the past year. This is a challenging time for the MOD—perhaps the times are always challenging for the MOD—I have an important job to do, and I intend to get on with it.

It is very refreshing for a Secretary of State to come to Parliament, to admit full responsibility, to say that he is to blame and to say that he is sorry. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on doing that. I genuinely want to ask him, because it is the sort of question that the public will be asking, if a Secretary of State has made mistakes and admits that he has done something wrong, what sort of mistake does it take for him then to decide that he should offer his resignation? I am asking for my right hon. Friend’s view.

My hon. Friend’s opening remarks are no mean praise and I accept them in the spirit in which they are offered. I decline her invitation to set out the parameters and thresholds for ministerial resignation.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s contriteness in now—belatedly—accepting the principle that service personnel join up to serve their country, not their pocket. Nevertheless, it remains disturbing that the 15 captives, who included two officers, were so easily manipulated into making apologies that were not due. I suggest that, instead of trying to wash his hands of the whole incident, the Secretary of State should accept that he is ultimately responsible for the armed services. He should examine the situation carefully to ensure that it does not happen again, because it has been a disgrace to this country.

I accept my responsibility, but I say very clearly, as I have already done twice in the House, that I do not think that I or anybody else in the House should volunteer themselves into a situation in which they can condemn those young people for their behaviour, and for their exploitation in circumstances of which, as far as I am aware, nobody in the House has any experience at all. The hon. Gentleman asks that I accept responsibility; I have accepted responsibility, and there is nothing belated about my doing so. I have nothing further to add in relation to the conduct of the young people involved.

A constituent of mine was one of the 15 members of our armed forces captured by Iran. May I say to my right hon. Friend that the overwhelming feeling in my community is one of relief and joy that the safe recovery of those brave people was secured? My constituent chose to say very little to the press, but of all the other commentators who have piled in on the issue, both inside and outside the House, is it not a pity that more did not choose to thank those responsible for, and involved in, the peaceable resolution of the matter?

Clearly, in securing as we did, through the means by which we did, the safe return of the people concerned, the Government were doing their job. I have to say that in my time in government, I have long moved away from expecting anybody to recognise something as being other than what is expected from the Government, and that is exactly how it should be. May I take the opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s constituent, whose identity I do not know, for the service that he has given, the job that he was doing in difficult circumstances, his ability to sustain himself in detention, and the way in which he has conducted himself since he returned?