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Iraq: HMS “Cornwall” Inquiries

Volume 692: debated on Monday 4 June 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether the two inquiries set in hand by the Secretary of State for Defence on 16 April following the seizure of Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel by the Iranian authorities on 23 March have been completed.

My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Corporal Darren Bonner, Corporal Mike Gilyeat and Guardsman Daniel Probyn, who were killed during operations in Afghanistan over the Recess.

Lieutenant-General Fulton has completed his report on the operational issues and has presented it to the Chief of the Defence Staff, who is considering it. The review into media access being led by Tony Hall is due to be completed shortly, and I expect an announcement to be made to Parliament on both later this month.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I add my condolences to the families of the soldiers whom he mentioned.

In his Written Statement about setting up these inquiries, the Secretary of State said that an incremental return to full boarding operations in all areas will take place. Are they now taking place? Will the Minister remind the House why it is necessary for boarding parties to undertake these operations, which have a serious restriction on free passage? Given the evidently limited expertise of those involved in the boarding operations, is this a better way of finding out whether there is contraband cargo than examining ships when they dock? Has General Fulton’s inquiry established whether the risks involved in boarding are supported by excellent or very good results?

My Lords, I can inform the House that the Royal Navy recommenced boarding operations in the Gulf on 23 April 2007. These boarding operations are very important. Considerable smuggling is taking place in the region. It is important for these operations to take place to ensure that this smuggling is reduced. These anti-smuggling operations are done under the auspices of UN Security Council Resolution 1723. The noble and gallant Lord highlighted the assessment of the risks of such boardings in the area. These are within the remit of the inquiry that Lieutenant-General Fulton has undertaken.

My Lords, can my noble friend reassure me that following these reports the Government will give very careful thought to the training needs of our service personnel because, particularly in areas of trouble and where there are either tyrannical or fragile states, it seems inevitable that it will become increasingly common for our service personnel to be used in propaganda films and as hostages? The nature of the training required for all our service personnel in those areas to deal with that is profoundly important. That should be one of the lessons to be learnt from this. I hope that my noble friend can reassure us about that.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. He is absolutely right that training for after capture is considered under the inquiry. Lessons that need to be learnt in that area will be implemented. The Navy has already taken certain actions to ensure that proper training is given to all personnel engaged in operations.

My Lords, these Benches also send our condolences to the families of the three soldiers whom the Minister mentioned. We are entirely satisfied with the setting up of the Fulton inquiry but have concerns about the second inquiry. Is the Minister satisfied that this inquiry will be able to name those responsible for the disastrous decision to sell the stories, whether they be in the Royal Navy, MoD public relations civilian staff or, indeed, Ministers?

My Lords, as both the review and the inquiry will be published shortly I do not think that it would be right for me to comment on their conclusions or the actions which will be taken as a result. However, I can say that we will publish in full the report of the media access review. Therefore, there will be a full opportunity to debate any lessons which need to be learnt as a result.

My Lords, these Benches also add our condolences to the families of the three soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Last week was a difficult week for the multinational forces in general both in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is very heartening that the Fulton inquiry has reported so quickly, given that it comprised just Lieutenant-General Fulton and his major. It was an unusual process. Do we now expect to have a formal board of inquiry so that evidence may be taken in the normal way and that those who may be criticised for what happened will have a legal basis on which to defend themselves?

My Lords, we need to see the outcome of the inquiry. Both the Defence Select Committee and a group of noble Lords will have the opportunity to scrutinise the inquiry on a confidential basis; in this House the group will be under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lady Dean. I am not aware of decisions having been taken on the process following the Fulton inquiry. The noble Lord, Lord Garden, is absolutely right that this is an unusual process, but it was done to enable us to carry out the inquiry much more quickly than would otherwise have been the case, had we gone through a formal BoI. I believe that the House believes that to have been the right decision, but of course we will have to make sure that full opportunity is provided to all personnel concerned relating to any consequences of the Fulton inquiry.

My Lords, without anticipating the conclusions of the inquiries, will the terms include whether there was adequate ministerial cover on those fateful days when the decisions were taken regarding publication? Will the inquiry deal with whoever took the decisions?

My Lords, I have nothing further to add to the statements that have been made, setting out in full the terms of reference for both inquiries, and the fact that the inquiries were set up immediately and were given a very clear and broad remit covering both the operational aspects, which were of fundamental importance, and the media handling where there are clearly lessons to be learnt. The terms of reference have been set out. We will be reporting on the outcomes of the reviews very shortly, and then we will have a full opportunity to debate any consequences.

My Lords, is it not an important principle of our parliamentary democracy and of ministerial responsibility that, whatever the circumstances of the decision to allow those people to sell their stories to the press, it is the Minister who is responsible? There is no way that that can be got away from.

My Lords, I believe that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made it crystal clear in his Statement to the other place that he takes full responsibility for all the actions of the Ministry of Defence, including in this case.