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Iraq: HMS “Cornwall”

Volume 691: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What was the value of the boats, weapons and other naval equipment from HMS “Cornwall” that were recently seized by the Iranian authorities; and whether the findings of the board of inquiry into the reasons for their loss will be made public.

My Lords, the value of the boats and other seized equipment was approximately £500,000. As I said yesterday, there will be an inquiry into the incident, led by Lieutenant-General Rob Fulton. As it will consider operationally sensitive material, it will not be possible to publish all the conclusions, but they will be presented to the Select Committee on Defence in another place. I have asked officials to make appropriate arrangements with regard to this House.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. When I tabled this Question, there had been a suggestion that there would not even be a board of inquiry into this operational failure. Will the Minister make available as soon as possible the board of inquiry’s terms of reference? One must reserve judgment until one is aware that all aspects of this gross failure of operations will be looked at. When one of Her Majesty’s ships is sunk or major loss or damage is involved, is it not long-standing Royal Navy practice for the ship’s captain to face a court martial? Who, if anyone, on board HMS “Cornwall” does the Minister think may face a court martial following the board of inquiry?

My Lords, with regard to the noble and gallant Lord’s first question, we will happily publish the inquiry’s terms of reference. As I said yesterday in the House, the inquiry will not be a witch hunt. I do not believe that it is appropriate for me to answer the noble and gallant Lord’s other question.

My Lords, HMS “Cornwall” and two other frigates are being mothballed. How many operational frigates does that leave us with?

My Lords, we are embarking on a significant shipbuilding programme to provide the Royal Navy with the forces that it requires. This incident did not relate in any way whatever to the number of frigates, and there were no issues relating to the provision of equipment. I will provide the noble Baroness with a written answer concerning the number of frigates.

My Lords, will the inquiry ask Royal Navy and Defence Intelligence Service personnel in the Embargo Surveillance Centre at the MoD whether the seizure took place at a point which is the subject of a dispute between Iran and Iraq and where, according to former staff, there is no agreed boundary?

My Lords, as I said in the House yesterday, the inquiry will cover all operational aspects of the incident. As I said yesterday, and as has been said a number of times by the Government, this incident took place well within Iraqi territory.

My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister’s assurance to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, that the terms of reference for the board of inquiry will be made available. That is very important. Have they been written already and thus will they be available later today? If not, when does the six-week period start from? Does it start from yesterday, from when the terms of reference are written or from when the inquiry is put together? Six weeks is a very short time for what will obviously be a wide-ranging and complex inquiry.

My Lords, my understanding is that the six weeks started yesterday. It is a short period. An inquiry, as opposed to a board of inquiry, was launched so that the process could happen more quickly. That is a response to the very important issue with which we are dealing here and I think that it reflects the Government’s commitment to get to the bottom of the cause as quickly as possible and to put in place whatever measures are necessary to ensure that it does not happen again.

My Lords, notwithstanding the validity of the Question of my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig, will the Minister acknowledge that, not just over the past four years but over some 20 years of Armilla patrol, the Royal Navy has conducted an exemplary number of boardings, usually going totally unsung, unrecognised or getting no praise?

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord is absolutely right. It is important for us to retain the perspective that the Navy has carried out such boardings and will continue to do so in situations where there is risk to the personnel. It has done so in an outstanding manner.

My Lords, yesterday’s Statement ended with the words that our personnel had been returned on our terms and with no deal. What reference did our terms make to these boats, which, like those in 2004, were stolen from us and are, as yet, unreturned?

My Lords, we continue to press the Iranian Government with regard to the return of our boats and equipment. However, the terms of yesterday’s Statement related to our focus—that is, our people.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the value of the boats now illegally held by the Iranians is upwards of £1 million? Can he be more specific about exactly what pressures are being put on that vile regime to return that property to us?

My Lords, I can confirm that the total amount involved in the 2004 incident and the incident that took place recently is approximately that quoted by my noble friend. We will continue to put full pressure on the Iranian Government on this and other matters relating to their international commitments. We do that through multilateral efforts. I believe that the rapid progress we made in securing the release of our 15 personnel shows that those multilateral efforts have an effect.

My Lords, has there been any response from the Iranian Government to our approaches for the return of this equipment?

My Lords, there have been responses, but they have not been satisfactory. The equipment has not been returned.

My Lords, is it usual for naval personnel to carry iPods when actively engaged as members of a boarding party?