My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Defence Secretary. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about operational events during the Recess. Before I start, I know that the whole House will join me in expressing my condolences to the families and friends of the nine service men 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 this was an accident, not an attack. Several personnel were seriously injured during this period in these and other incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they too are in our thoughts.
“This 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.
“Members will understand that there is a strict time limit on this Statement. I intend to focus on the incident which has attracted the most public and parliamentary attention during 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.
“I turn first to the incident itself. On 23 March, HMS ‘Cornwall’ was operating as part of the coalition taskforce in the northern Arabian Gulf under the authority of a UN resolution. The taskforce is responsible for a range of maritime security operations, including protecting the Iraqi oil infrastructure and undertaking boardings to disrupt weapons smuggling.
“At 0753, ‘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 0846, the Royal Marine boarding officer reported the ship secure. The Lynx was tasked to return to the ‘Cornwall’. By 0900, the helicopter was back on board and put at 30 minutes’ notice to fly.
“At 0904, 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 0906, voice communications with the boats were lost and, shortly after, all communications were lost.
“At 0928, 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 1005 one was spotted being escorted by Iranian vessels.
“That concludes what I can say today 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 and took them first to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval base and from there to Tehran. We made 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 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 who 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. 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. Let me be clear: there was no apology, and 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 that in retrospect I should have rejected the note and over-ruled the decision. The circumstances were exceptional and the pressure on the families was intense. The Navy’s decision was taken in good faith, and so was its interpretation of the regulations. But I should have foreseen that this attempt by the Navy in good faith to handle an exceptional situation would be interpreted as indicating a new departure in the way 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 immediately review the rules and stop any further media payments to serving personnel until this 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 with the House: I made a mistake. I have been completely open about that. And 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 this reputation is hard won, it is not easily undermined. These are the facts as I know them.
“Let me turn to what happens now. I made clear on Monday the implications for the specific issue of serving personnel receiving payment—that this must not happen again. But clearly there are other lessons to be learned from this whole incident.
“The first aspect is the operational circumstances and factors leading to the capture of the 15 personnel. This was an unusual situation with wide and far-reaching consequences; and to reflect this, I can announce that the Chief of the Defence Staff has appointed Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Fulton, Royal Marines, currently the Governor-General of Gibraltar, to lead an inquiry. As a retired former commander of UK amphibious taskforces, he will bring both expertise and objectivity to the inquiry. It 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 this to take around six weeks. Clearly it will consider operationally sensitive material and, as such, it will not be possible to publish all the conclusions, but they will be presented to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee in full. I am committed to ensuring that Parliament and the public have the full facts but, just as importantly, to ensuring that the MoD and the services learn from these events and do not let this happen again.
“In a similar spirit, and on the same timeframe, 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 of this incident but of other high-profile incidents involving personnel on operations.
“I want to make it clear that this 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 at play in this area: how to balance our duty to support our people, 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 over last weekend. I have acted to put it right. I have acted to make sure we learn the lessons of the whole episode in a manner that allows for full parliamentary scrutiny. But, as we go through this process, we should remember the most important point in all this, which is that we got our people back safe and on our terms”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and I join him in sending our condolences to the families of those who died in the Puma helicopters and to the families of the other members of the Armed Forces killed during the Recess. Our thoughts are also with those personnel who were seriously injured. While we have been enjoying our Easter holidays, our Armed Forces have been serving on our behalf, sometimes paying the ultimate price.
I am sure that it gave the Minister no pleasure to have to make this humiliating Statement any more than it has given any of us pleasure to hear it. I say nothing at this stage about the victims of these events—the 15 British sailors and marines who were seized, detained and exhibited by the Iranians. Some people may be willing to regard the whole thing as a chapter of accidents, but that, I fear, is not the truth of the matter. The truth is that they were seized, clearly unlawfully, while engaged on operations for which they were inadequately equipped, inadequately briefed and inadequately supported.
The inadequacies have not arisen from this operation; they have been long-standing, as noble and gallant Lords and many other noble Lords from all sides of this House have warned time and time again. The inadequacies are thus the direct fault of Her Majesty’s Government and of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in particular, together with their successive Secretaries of State for Defence, due to their persistent determination to take unfair advantage of the can-do attitude of our Armed Forces and to task those forces spread over-thinly on the ground, on the water and in the air—in short, to do as much as possible with as little as possible.
So we welcome the announcement of the setting up of an inquiry. My right honourable friend David Cameron made it clear that the Opposition, speaking for the country as a whole, require there to be a prompt and full inquiry, examining and reporting on the fundamental causes as well as the incidental events. Those who are fortunate to know Sir Rob Fulton will immediately agree that he is exactly the right person to undertake this task. We hear what was said in the Statement about not publishing the full conclusions of the Fulton report and about disclosing the whole to the Defence Committee in the other place. I believe that I will have the support of all sides of the House when I say that it is essential that the report’s findings should be disclosed equally fully to a representative body of noble Lords. I must therefore ask the Minister whether he will take steps to consult the usual channels as soon as possible on how such a body can best be established.
In the mean time, there are some outstanding questions to which the public are entitled to an immediate answer. Is it usual for mother ships to stand off at large distances—10 nautical miles in this case—from ongoing boarding operations? It is well known that because of atmospheric conditions in the area, radio communications often fail, as appears to have happened in this case. Why, if it is standard practice and necessary to maintain continuous air cover during such operations, did the Lynx return to HMS “Cornwall” and why was it then at only 30 minutes notice to fly? Is it a correct decision that all our naval boarding operations should now be halted while, as we are told in the Statement, they are continued by our allies, or is this another example of a hasty and unconsidered decision by the Secretary of State?
Will the Fulton report also cover the number of personnel who should be involved in boarding operations, their armaments and additional support that should always be on hand? Why was the incursion by the Iranians not picked up by HMS “Cornwall”? It is only three years since other members of our Armed Forces were illegally seized by the Iranians. What procedures were put in place after discussions with the Iranians after that seizure? Are they still valid?
The main role of HMS “Cornwall” has been to protect the Iraqi oil infrastructure. Who will be responsible for that when HMS “Cornwall” is paid off? Is the Minister satisfied that naval personnel receive adequate conduct-after-capture training to cope with likely increased efforts to take them hostage?
While welcoming the setting up of a review of media handling, why were proper plans not in place for the return of the captives, particularly in light of the PCC’s warning to the MoD of the possible media circus and its offer of help.
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?
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. 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?
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?
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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
Finally, the Minister has evaded to a considerable extent questions about why these personnel were not properly trained in the techniques of resisting interrogation. As a young officer in 1949, I was trained in such techniques, and the training was a bit rough at times. However, it is now clearly inadequate.
My Lords, I am afraid that I disagree with the noble Lord. The incident that took place in 2004 on the Shatt al-Arab waterway was quite different from this case. It occurred within the waterway and the circumstances were completely different. A review of the events in 2004 relating to the taking of boats was undertaken by the Ministry of Defence and its conclusions were implemented. We have to make sure that the conclusions reached by the review into this incident are similarly implemented. However, these operations were different in nature and cannot be compared with each other. The noble Lord shakes his head, but we shall have to disagree on that point. There is quite a difference between patrolling a waterway as in the operation in 2004 and carrying out lawful boarding operations to combat smuggling under a UN mandate in Iraqi territorial waters.
The noble Lord has much more experience than I on the history of training to resist interrogation and I bow to his knowledge. The point is well made. We have taken it on board and we have made changes. But until now it was not regarded as necessary.
My Lords, is not one of the main lessons of this premeditated seizure of our personnel by the Iranians that firmness towards this rotten regime succeeds while floundering and appeasement fails to encourage the fundamentalists to come clean about their nuclear ambitions? Will the Government now match the firmness they demonstrated on this occasion by removing the ban on the Iranian resistance to signal our support for those who have had their freedom and human rights stolen from them?
My Lords, first, I share with other noble Lords our thanks that the marines have been returned safe and sound, but some hard lessons have to be learnt from this which have been mentioned by a number of speakers. My anger is directed at two areas. The first is training and preparation, issues touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. On military operations you plan for the worst case, but as far as I can see there was smugness, a lack of training and a lack of grip in the preparation of those sailors for the role they were undertaking. I find that quite amazing, given that they were next door to Iraq where we are deeply involved in operations. Secondly, my anger is directed at officials, both non-uniformed and military, in the advice they gave the Secretary of State. It is extraordinary that that advice was given. I have always had a great belief in the importance not only of the military but also of the Civil Service in these issues. The fact is that they gave what I thought was third-rate advice, and I cannot believe that some of the great permanent under-secretaries I have known in the Ministry of Defence would have allowed it to happen. It is a big issue.
I want the Secretary of State to remain in office, as I know do the Chiefs of Staff. My trade test for the Secretary of State would not be this, but to make sure that the services are funded in the way they need to be. If they are not, that is when he should resign.
My Lords, I take on board the comments of the noble and gallant Lord, given his experience. Equally, we have taken on board the points relating to training and preparation made by him and the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. As I have said, action has been taken in this regard. However, I do not believe that we should criticise the 15 individuals who had to withstand a frankly awful experience and did so in a way that I really do believe is to their great credit.
With regard to the point that the noble and gallant Lord made about advice within the Ministry of Defence, we recognise, as my right honourable friend has said and as was described in the Statement, that a mistake was made, and we have moved to put that right. We need to learn the lessons from this experience to ensure that it does not happen again.