Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 259)



  240. When the Committee was in the Gulf last year we picked up a concern about the continuation of the no-fly zones and what was happening with the relationship with Iraq, and there was a concern being expressed, not upfront but in other circles, about the fact that there was no light at the end of the tunnel; that they were continuing and there was no movement, so much so that we heard that Kuwait was organising a conference of all Arab states to discuss it. That was a year ago and now we have rumours that there is a weakening of support for no-fly zones. How are we responding to that? Are we just high-balling it and saying "Well, we will just carry on"?
  (Mr Hoon) We are not but, at the same time, I think it is important to put the views of the international community into the appropriate context, and the context is Security Council resolution 1284. This was negotiated after many months—I suspect it seemed like years at the time—of determined effort in the United Nations to establish a process that was on offer to Iraq to Saddam Hussein by which there could be, to use your phrase, light at the end of the tunnel. There was—and continues to be—an opportunity for Saddam Hussein to accept the will of the international community, an agreed Security Council resolution, whereby if he allows appropriate inspection of facilities in Iraq then there can be a progressive lifting of sanctions. Clearly, in such circumstances, there could well be then a series of discussions with the regime that would have beneficial effects as far as the people of Iraq are concerned, but we must have overriding concern for the people on the ground in the northern and southern no-fly zone whom we are protecting.

Dr Lewis

  241. May I add my personal thanks, and I am sure that of Mr Gapes, for the hospitality you extended to us when we accompanied you to Sierra Leone last week and in particular for the extent to which you involved us in parts of your programme that you need not have done. This was greatly appreciated. The Permanent Secretary and others told us on 17 January that Sierra Leone was providing a kind of dry run for the way in which the new conflict-prevention, cross-cutting budget would be used. If the champions of this new type of budget are vindicated, it is going to change the way in which the Ministry thinks about applying UK resources to trouble spots. How do you feel this conceptual approach is working in Sierra Leone at the present time?
  (Mr Hoon) I do not think it just applies to Sierra Leone but to a number of other areas. One of the key lessons learned from Kosovo was that it is not simply enough to have extremely effective military capability that prevents humanitarian catastrophe; you also have to have the people that you can then put into a place like Kosovo. The civil administration was completely shattered, not only as a result of the conflict but over many years of totalitarian rule and, in those circumstances, I recognised that we needed access to all sorts of skill. That is still the case as well in Sierra Leone because, as you saw, what the British army are capable of doing certainly is to train the Sierra Leonean army to behave in a lawful, constitutionally respectable way with the military skills that go with that but allied to that will be the need for policing, for example, as well as other governmental skills that will be required once the country responds to the lawful expectations of a democratically-elected government. What I see very much about the conflict prevention fund in a sense is that, once the purely military aspect has been completed, then we need to recognise that there will be other issues down the track that have to follow behind. It may well be that those are taking place simultaneously as the military solution is taken forward.

  242. Briefly, on that further point you have raised, I know that Mr Gapes and I were both very affected by what we saw on one bit of the visit where our programme was diverged from yours when we visited the amputee camp, where there were no fewer than 226 people ranging from a toddler of 13 months to breadwinners for families who had had either one or both hands cut off by the RUF. Is there any way in which you can see the Ministry of Defence co-operating with the DFID to target some specific assistance, either now or in perhaps a happier phase of development when the military project has gone further on that peculiarly horrifying aspect of the war?
  (Mr Hoon) In the first place, what we do is designed to deal with the intimidation that that kind of appalling behaviour was about. Clearly, the attacks were appalling for the individuals but they were designed to intimidate. They were about ensuring that the rest of the population realised what these people were capable of and, by training the army, we are giving the government of Sierra Leone the opportunity of saying to its population that they will not suffer those kinds of attacks. When we did visit Masiaka, for example, we all saw the benefits of that in terms of an area that had previously been controlled by a rebel group now being repopulated by its original population, with people going about their lives and getting on with business free from the sort of intimidation that you saw at the amputee camp. It is part of what we do as much as, say, what DFID and other government departments might do in terms of granting financial or other assistance. Certainly, however, I see this as part of a joined-up process. I do not think we should be seeking to separate out the different elements. When we look at projects in the conflict prevention fund, we will be looking at ways in which we can work together to deliver a conclusion. It follows that there is no point in training the Sierra Leonean army to control the territory of Sierra Leone if we then do not put in place, or help to put in place either, the civil administration that allows the government to govern.

Mr Gapes

  243. Can I, first of all, agree and thank both yourself and your officials and Brigadier Riley and all the military people we met. I was really struck by how competent and how caring our people are in Sierra Leone, and we are making a difference—it is quite clear. You can see the mood of the people and there is a general sense that it is getting better, and I am very glad I was able to see that. We are doing a job and we have just extended the period for the military short-term training mission until September and, obviously, I am not asking you to give years and dates but how long do you think we will need to maintain our forces with a presence in Sierra Leone?
  (Mr Hoon) I agreed to the extension of the training because those responsible for the training came forward with specific reasons as to why we should carry on, both in terms of training more people but crucially to give those individual soldiers who have received basic military training the ability to work in units. The advice I received was to the effect that, whilst we had trained a good number of people who would be useful individually, they lack the kinds of skills that organised units require if they are taken to occupied ground which, ultimately, we assume the President of Sierra Leone will want to do. So that was a specific justification for extending the training teams and obviously I remain open to those sorts of arguments. Equally, in the light of all the comments this Committee has made today and the very practical considerations, I also have to recognise there is a limit to that. I cannot put a date on it because it would not be sensible at this stage to do so. I think it is clear from what we saw in Sierra Leone that we are moving towards a situation, and we saw something of it in Masiaka, that those trained units can now go out into areas that were previously dominated by the rebels and occupy those areas and behave in a military way that is useful to the government. That is a process that is clearly under way and we will expect to see continuing.

  244. Clearly now the economic recovery that is beginning in Freetown and the children going to school normally and all the rest of the normalisation that is going on will require time. The UN operation and our own role within Sierra Leone, both in support of the UN and directly, is something that we would not want to pull the plug on and then allow the rebels to come back.
  (Mr Hoon) No.

  245. Could you give an assessment of how you would judge when our mission has been fulfilled?
  (Mr Hoon) Our strategy has always been to carry on after the short-term training teams with an international training team that will be very much about this kind of strategic leadership role that the government forces will need to develop. In a sense we want to go beyond training individuals into units to make sure that the Sierra Leonean army has available to it the ability there itself to carry on training. Again, there is no point in training thousands of soldiers if the government itself cannot continue the process thereafter. That is why we always planned for the international training team to continue where we left off.

  246. Can I put to you that from my point of view, having been there, I would say I think we should stay for as long as we are needed and not prematurely withdraw for other reasons.
  (Mr Hoon) We will stay for as long as we are needed but I think it is important to distinguish between the need to do the training, which is what we are doing, and the question of security in Sierra Leone. When you talk about need, we are not there to provide security other than in this indirect sense. We have indicated that we would be willing and we have available an over-the-horizon capability, but on the ground what we are doing is training the forces of the Government of Sierra Leone to establish their own security, if I can put it that way. That was what was encouraging about our visit because they are clearly demonstrating that capability. I would not want the need to be in any way confused with the security need. The need is about training. That was why I was able to take the decision, because it was put to me that there was a need for further training. I am confident that there will come a time when that need is no longer as acute.

  Mr Gapes: I hope there is no suggestion of any premature withdrawal from Sierra Leone.

  Chairman: I think if ever there is a justification for intervention anywhere, Sierra Leone is it. You may say, Secretary of State, we are just there for training, but the psychological impact is much more than a small group of people undertaking training. If ever a time comes for us to withdraw it has to be absolutely, as I am sure it will be, well, well thought out. I am very proud of what the British forces are doing over there. I am very sad, frankly, that we do not have more resources to put in more people; you judge the size. Anyone who goes there will come back totally, totally committed to the British presence. I just hope the United Nations can develop their skills commensurate with the task, but I am less confident of the latter than the former. We have another 20 minutes, if that is okay.

Mr Brazier

  247. I am sorry if I have to drop out for a private medical reason at the last moment but I echo the Chairman's words. I strongly opposed all our interventions in the Balkans but I think Sierra Leone is a model of what we should be doing. I have got a long list of rather complicated questions on public-private initiatives and the guidelines. It is obviously a very important and complicated subject. I am going to give you several questions together, if I may, for brevity. Does the Investment Strategy's announcement that you are looking at ways of using PFI for war-fighting equipment represent a change in policy? What criteria, whether it does or not, will you be applying in drawing a line beyond which PFIs will not venture? There clearly has to be a line somewhere. Thirdly—
  (Mr Hoon) The line is that we will not in any way compromise military capability for financial reasons. What we are trying to do is enhance our military capability, military effectiveness, at the same time as achieving value for money. That is a test that I will apply to any proposal for using private finance.

  248. How do you reconcile your policy of withholding public funding for new capital investment unless "private financing [is] shown to be inappropriate, unworkable or uneconomic" with your commitment to a level playing field between PFIs and public sector solutions?
  (Mr Hoon) Because that is the precise approach that we adopt in determining whether or not a private finance solution is sensible. It is entirely even-handed and we make judgments according to achieving value for money without in any way compromising military capability.

  249. You do not see either having a contract heavy lift capability or potentially a contract Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft as compromising the front-line capability? Supposing, to take the heavy lift example, you have a not entirely secure airfield you are operating to and problems of enforcing a contract where you are landing in a war zone?
  (Mr Hoon) Part of the process that we undertake in determining the appropriateness of a private sector solution is to look at precisely those issues and they are built into the contractual arrangements. We, for example, have negotiated special arrangements for the crewing of roll-on roll-off ferries for precisely that reason, so if those vessels had to go into war-like zones they would be able to do so and it would be covered in the agreement.

  250. They would have uniformed crews?
  (Mr Hoon) Exactly.


  251. Military uniformed crews?
  (Mr Hoon) They would be Sponsored Reserves, but that is part of the thinking. We are not taken by surprise that when we procure military equipment or military services they might have to go into war.

Mr Brazier

  252. That would apply to the heavy lift as well?
  (Mr Hoon) We have not got that far, I think it is fair to say. What we are looking at with heavy lift for transport aircraft is the purchase of the aircraft. We have not yet got into discussions about how they will be used because they have not yet been constructed.

  253. Obviously that is going to be a matter of some interest to the Committee given that pivotal role.
  (Mr Hoon) The C-17s that will be available this year are military aircraft.

  254. They will have military crew?
  (Mr Hoon) Yes.

  255. The final question: your Investment Strategy anticipates a more proactive approach to using assets in exploiting wider markets. Do you anticipate a greater emphasis on PFIs to deliver it? What do you think the potential is for the revenues that could be generated from these wider markets?
  (Mr Hoon) There are obvious opportunities but they vary according to particular areas. We discussed agencies earlier on. The Training Agency, for example, has begun to be very successful in offering training packages beyond employees of the Ministry of Defence and is beginning to derive some significant income. I have to say that we approached that in terms of looking at the asset and whether it is necessary. If we do not need that particular asset then clearly the solution, as we have discussed already this morning, is to sell it. If, on the other hand, strategically we require a particular asset into the future but, for example, we cannot use it 100% of the time for MoD purposes then we will look to using that in other ways in these wider opportunities that are around. Some of those agencies will be better able to exploit those opportunities than others simply by reason of what they do. Training is certainly an area where I think we have significant assets that we cannot use 100% of the time and ought to derive some income from because in deriving that income that adds to the amount of resources we have available to spend on defence.

  256. You are allowed to keep all the income under the new strategy, 100 per cent in house?
  (Mr Hoon) Yes, every penny.

  Mr Brazier: That is a considerable advance.

  257. I would like to move on to DU and veterans' welfare. Are DU munitions an essential part of the Armed Forces' weapons inventory?
  (Mr Hoon) Depleted uranium shells are the most effective way of dealing with main battle tanks today. That is why they will continue to be in our inventory unless and until we establish some other way of dealing with main battle tanks.

  258. Are you looking for cost-effective alternatives to DU?
  (Mr Hoon) There are a number of different ways of attacking a main battle tank but I am sure you would not want me to ask British servicemen to put their lives at risk because there was a weapon available that would do the job and we take it out of service.

  258. Do you remain convinced that the risk to human health from DU is negligible?
  (Mr Hoon) Yes, I do. I spent some considerable time looking in particular at the statistics. The one area of statistics that I found most convincing was the epidemiological evidence of those who had been deployed to the Gulf, around 53,000 service personnel, compared to service personnel, again a control group of around the same number, who were not deployed. The death rates over that ten year period since the Gulf conflict are almost identical. What struck me as being of great significance was the incidence of cancer among the control group, that is those who did not go to the Gulf, was actually higher marginally than the incidence of cancer among those who did go. So there is not any evidence at all of any enhanced propensity to cancer, for example, as a result of serving in the Gulf. That is not simply exposure to DU. I think one of the interesting things about those who have expressed concern about so-called Gulf War Syndrome is that the causes of that syndrome have been changing over the period of the ten years and DU is perhaps just one of the more recent suggestions as to what might be the problem.

  259. At this stage are you able to assess the response to your offer to provide medical testing for veterans who are concerned that they may be suffering some form of radiation poisoning?
  (Mr Hoon) We already have—I have visited it and if you would like to go I would certainly encourage you to do the same—a unit at St Thomas' Hospital which is available for Gulf War veterans to go in and have their symptoms looked at and considered. I was very impressed with the thoroughness and the amount of time that was made available to each person. As I say, if you would like to go I would certainly extend that opportunity to you and you can see for yourselves the care with which problems are looked at. What we are equally trying to do, and John Spellar made clear in the statement he made to the House, is to find a way of reassuring not only Gulf War veterans but obviously more recently those who have been to the Balkans that whatever symptoms they may be suffering from, if they are suffering a particular illness, are not related to their service. Can I put this as best I can in a personal context. Sadly, we all have experience of friends and relatives who suffer cancer, it is something that is far more prevalent in our society than we are sometimes prepared to acknowledge. My experience of people who fall victim to cancer is they do not want to accept that they have been, if I could put it this way, unlucky, they want an explanation, they want to try and find a reason. I think what has happened with many Gulf War veterans who have suffered cancer since their service is they want to find an explanation and their service gives them an explanation, but the statistics that I demonstrated in relation to the incidence of cancer since the Gulf War, particularly the fact that the control group have shown more signs of cancer than those who actually served, does demonstrate, I think, that this is a problem of the prevalence of the disease in our society rather than anything associated with service in the Gulf.

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