Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-319)

WEDNESDAY 28 NOVEMBER 2001

RT HON GEOFFREY HOON MP, AND MR SIMON WEBB, CBE

  300. So the answer is yes, is it?
  (Mr Hoon) As I say, I am not going to make your story for you by commenting on any particular countries, because you are giving me a hypothetical. What I am saying is that my job as Secretary of State for Defence for the United Kingdom ultimately is to ensure that there is a proper defence available to the citizens of this country and this country's interests, and that is what I do.

  301. Wherever it comes from?
  (Mr Hoon) Wherever it arises, of course.

Mr Howarth

  302. Secretary of State, that leads me straight to the point about Iraq, because there have been suggestions made that we do face a threat from people operating from Iraq or from Iraq itself. Lord Owen at a recent conference at the Royal United Services Institute suggested that it was more or less axiomatic that the Americans would go on to Iraq next and that there would be a kind of domino series of attacks by America on places which they regard as harbouring terrorists. Can you tell us whether you are aware of any additional threat at the moment beyond that which emanates from Afghanistan? Are you aware whether any of those who have been in Afghanistan have removed themselves and may be operating from another state? If the United States were intent upon going after, say, Iraq or elements within Iraq, do we have the capability of assisting them, and in principle would we? That is a sort of practical question, not a theoretical one.
  (Mr Hoon) It is a very clever question. We are very well aware, and we all were aware, of the fact that Al-Qaeda has tentacles in a very considerable number of jurisdictions, including this one, for example, and determined efforts have been made to deal with those tentacles in a number of different countries. The response, as I indicated earlier, may depend on the most effective way of dealing with that threat. In our society the most effective way is acting upon information that we have, making arrests wherever they are clearly justified, and certainly acting against their sources of finance, their communications, their ability to use and smuggle weapons, all of which, as I indicated earlier, although I cannot prove it, I am sure has had some impact already. I think that across the spectrum then there are different means that may well be appropriate according to the places in which Al-Qaeda and similar organisations operate. In a state that, for example, has very little ability to control what happens within its own borders, then certainly a degree of invasive military response may be appropriate, but that will have to be judged in the light of the information, its proximate threat and whether that is the best way of dealing with it. Those are options that are, and have been, looked at thoroughly and will continue to be considered and reviewed as we go along.

  303. But you do not see an immediate threat emanating from Iraq or elements of Iraq at the present time?
  (Mr Hoon) Actually, as far as Iraq is concerned, I have not seen any evidence to link Iraq directly with Al-Qaeda.

Jim Knight

  304. Secretary of State, in your series of questions which you cleverly posed to us so we could avoid asking you our own questions, I suppose, you list amongst them the role of the armed forces in dealing with problems upstream, which we have been dealing with in the context of doctrine. You then talk about "How do we engage the causes of terrorism as well as the terrorists themselves? How do we do so on a cross-Governmental and coalition basis and what is the role of the military, if any, in this? How do we avoid the use of force becoming our opponent's own recruiting sergeant?"—clearly an issue of difficult balance and policy. Are you convinced, as Major-General Milton was when he came before us, that the doctrine is sufficiently flexible to serve us in this regard in the fight against terrorism? In particular, in the section "Military Strategy and the Relationship between the Policy and the Doctrine" it says: "In contrast with the potentially fluid and changeable nature of policy, military strategic level doctrine is informed by fundamental lessons learned over time about the ways in which military forces can be used effectively in support of policy." It seems to me that the very nature of the terrorist threat is that you have to predict the unpredictable, and that learning from the lessons of the past is not necessarily the right defence against terrorism.
  (Mr Hoon) I think that is absolutely right, and I can see that we do have to build on our experience. It may well not necessarily be the most recent experience; it may be that we have to go back, as Simon was saying, to campaigns in the past and learn some of those lessons. Certainly in the immediate aftermath of the events of 11 September a good deal of very hard thinking was done inside the Ministry of Defence in order to work out what was the appropriate military strategy. I suspect, when and if that is ever published, that it will involve some novel thinking and some novel elements, because inevitably all practical situations involve us responding in new and different ways. In answer to your specific question about the doctrine, I think the doctrine is sufficiently robust to deal with the terrorist threat, but it will evolve as those threats evolve.

  305. Even though it says in there that the doctrine is quite a rigid thing?
  (Mr Hoon) This is published in a modest way, recognising that it may have to be republished as we go along. I do not think there is any great surprise in that. I suspect that there are those who might well go back to Chinese military strategists and say that actually it was anticipated a long time ago, but the nature of modern societies is that unfortunately we are not all that good at collective memory, we tend, as you say, to deal with the very recent threat, and I think one of the challenges that we have to face up to is adjusting to threats that would have been entirely common in the Middle Ages. Certainly the idea of international organisations across boundaries that had no respect for, even if there were a concept of, the nation state at the time would not be particularly surprising 500 or 600 years ago.

Chairman

  306. I think the Chinese quotation I would use to supplement my first question, Secretary of State, was "You don't pull down one part of the city wall to build up another part." I will send you my collective works of Chinese military sayings.
  (Mr Hoon) I had not realised that Walsall was in China!

Mr Cran

  307. Secretary of State, it will hardly be a surprise to you that this Committee, in common with other Select Committees, is beginning to look at whether Government is structurally and organisationally prepared for the sort of attack that we saw on 11 September. I am not asking you to put yourself in the position of the Prime Minister, because you have just said to me, "Go off to 10 Downing Street and ask him, he's in charge of the Government." It was Mr Webb, when he came before us last time, who said to us that for air and sea-based threats the MoD takes the lead, and where it was land-based security the Home Office takes the lead. The Committee I think took the view that that was something which had built up over a long period of time. Therefore, if that is correct—and you could say that that is not correct, but if it is—the question is, if that has been developed over time, is it the right way of approaching this? Therefore, are you beginning to look very carefully at these sorts of structures?
  (Mr Hoon) My judgement at the moment is that it is the right way of dividing the direct responsibility, but I think the one thing that I have come to appreciate in the time that I have been doing this job is, particularly given the kinds of crises that we have had to deal with—and they have been many and varied—that they have necessarily involved a number of other government departments in co-ordinating a response. It may simply be the increasing complexity and organisation of our society where a crisis—I was not just thinking of the foot and mouth difficulties—in the 1960s probably mainly concerned the Ministry of Agriculture, but which, certainly in the responsibilities I had, involved around the table most of government departments, because most of government departments which in one way or another were either affected by the crisis or were involved in providing a solution. Therefore, I suspect that it is increasingly the case that terrorism, by definition, when we are dealing with a potential threat to the mainland of the United Kingdom, involves both the home departments and the departments that are more likely to be concerned with overseas issues. So I think joining up the response is a crucial part of modern Government's reaction, though it does not actually make a huge difference who has primacy in terms of policy, because as soon as there is a threat we would expect that a number of government departments would be involved in the response.

  308. It is worth pursuing that to this extent, to say—and this is not a political comment, there are plenty of examples in the Government that I support, and I guess there are plenty of examples in the Government that you are presently a member of—that all of that was in place for a number of other contingencies, but I am afraid the fact is that it just did not work out, because the job of co-ordinating Whitehall and government departments is a very big one indeed and, as somebody said to us this morning, tough wars are of course fought. When we are in the face of the sort of circumstances we are now, surely we have to cut all of this out? How would you respond to that? Or have there been no circumstances in which this has occurred?
  (Mr Hoon) No, I think you make a fair point. Government has learned some of those lessons as it has gone along. I accept that we continue to learn lessons and I accept that in the making of policy there are inevitably difficulties between different states, but that tends to be in rather slower a time when people perhaps have the opportunity of making difficulties. Frankly, my experience of dealing with crises is that Government works very well. It may not give the answer as quickly as we all might like, but in terms of bringing people together and getting them to work one with another, my experience of crises is that civil servants and others have worked magnificently and have responded with a great deal of determination to get the right result. As I say, there are times when we all feel that it takes longer than it should, but I think that has been in the nature of the crisis that we have had to deal with.

  309. Let me tempt you a little bit further and see if I can get you to answer this one.
  (Mr Hoon) I answered the last one.

  310. I am going to pray in aid Simon Webb here when he was giving evidence to us on a previous occasion. He was quite unrestrained when Mr Howarth put the question to him about should we follow the example of the United States and have a form of whatever it is called—Homeland Director. Doubtless he or she would not be called that, it would be a minister or whatever. Mr Webb said, "Absolute nonsense." He said, "This is not going to work" and so on. Can I tempt you to say whether you agree with him or disagree with him?
  (Mr Hoon) I think what I have found from my involvement in a number of different crises is—and this is the point I made to you at the outset—that it may well be that a department has the prime policy lead on a particular subject, but in a crisis actually what happens and happens pretty often is that a number of government departments come together and try to sort it out. So I would prefer not to have that separation, because I think that in the modern world it is fairly artificial. You see it in relation to dealing with the kinds of threats that international terrorism can pose. It would not make a lot of sense to say there should be one department or one minister that concentrates simply on the homeland aspects, when in fact the threat might have its origins in a training camp in Afghanistan and those people may well be moving money and weapons across the world which might, for example, involve people from the Foreign Office or associated with the Foreign Office in dealing with that. Once the threat arises in the United Kingdom, it may well be the counter-terrorism responsibility of the Home Office. You may want to reassure the population that you are dealing properly with that, and therefore it may well be a local government function. I believe that in a modern and very complicated world, the challenge to Government—and you are right, some of the governments in the past have not always had all that much success at it, but I think we are getting better at it—is to join up those different elements and make sure they work very effectively one with another.

  311. So you are developing this in a way, so I accept that. None the less, there is something called the Civil Contingencies Secretariat which comes under the Cabinet Office which you are not responsible for, but the Deputy Prime Minister is responsible for that, is he?
  (Mr Hoon) Ultimately, yes.

  312. So would it be the case that the Deputy Prime Minister would be answering for the wider aspects of the co-ordination within Government of what we are talking about in the fight against terrorism?
  (Mr Hoon) The best way of overseeing these responsibilities is through the Cabinet Office, again in order to demonstrate that this is not a single department's responsibility. By giving the Cabinet Office the overall responsibility, it is designed to demonstrate that we are bringing together the different departments in order to tackle the problems.

  313. In a letter from the Ministry of Defence it says, "Cabinet Office. The recently established Civil Contingencies Secretariat is primarily responsible for assessing the resilience of all Government Departments in the face of emergencies." The question is, of course, how resilient are you? I am pretty sure you are going to say, "Very resilient." What have you said to the Civil Contingencies Secretariat? Or, more interestingly, what have they said to you?
  (Mr Hoon) We have obviously, as all departments of Government have, in the period since 11 September had to look very carefully at the implications of those events for the way in which we conduct our business. I am not going to go into the precise threats that we have given thought to, because that will be of assistance to those who would threaten us, but I can assure you that a very considerable amount of work has gone on right across Government to think through the implications for Government and the way it responds on the events of 11 September.

  Chairman: I must say, to relieve any anxieties, the Civil Contingencies Secretariat is chaired by the Home Secretary[2]1.

  Mr Cran: So he is the Homeland Director.

  Chairman: The Sheffield part of it! I think he is.

Jim Knight

  314. Secretary of State, I want to pursue where James Cran was going a little bit more, in particular in terms of the practical arrangements and co-ordination across Government. Clearly the Deputy Prime Minister was not as confident as you are about how well the Civil Service responded, because he, in August 2001, commissioned a discussion document to look at the future of emergency planning in England and Wales because, one assumes, he did not think it worked that well during the fuel crisis and severe flooding in the autumn and winter of 2000 (foot and mouth was not mentioned in there).
  (Mr Hoon) I am sorry to interrupt, but I think that is a little unfair. I indicated earlier that there are always lessons to be learnt, there are always refinements we can make. Certainly my experience of each of those crises is that we did identify in each of those crises things that we could do better. I do not accept that it did not work well. I actually think it worked extremely well. It could work better.

  315. In each of those episodes the armed forces were used to good effect and perhaps helped the civil power co-ordinate and respond more efficiently, using the channels that the armed forces have. Within that context, do you think the principle of the military assisting the civil agencies only as and when they are called in is still appropriate in the context of this terrorist threat, or do you think we need more permanent co-ordination? We have talked about the United States. I think it was in France, there was mention this morning, that the Health Secretary was responsible for co-ordinating the whole thing on a more permanent basis and is held to account and is democratically accountable in that way.
  (Mr Hoon) My experience of dealing with crises is that I found myself in the rather strange position at one stage of chairing a Cabinet Committee dealing with foot and mouth, which was not something I had anticipated doing when I was appointed Secretary of State for Defence, and it certainly extended the limits of my knowledge of agricultural matters quite comprehensively. It does demonstrate that actually governments make decisions pragmatically. Clearly you need to have a response to a potential threat in place, you need to have a structure to deal with that, but if you are simply waiting for that threat and sitting not doing a great deal, then your response is unlikely to be as sharp as is necessary, therefore what you need to have—and I think this was the role of the armed forces, particularly in those crises, specifically foot and mouth—is the ability to scale up to a crisis. Most government departments can deal with (if I can call it this) a routine crisis, they have people with the skills, with the knowledge, with the ability to respond. What the armed forces were able to bring to bear—and I think this is very important about the skills that they have—is the ability to take what might start out as being a crisis that is relatively routine and scale up the response in a very short space of time, particularly using logistics skills to be able to respond to a much bigger crisis and bring in people quickly to be able to deal with that in a way that does not cause confusion and difficulty. I think that was a particular skill that I regarded as being absolutely crucial in that particular crisis.

  316. Obviously you are going to say that you do not want to prejudge the results of things, which is a really good defence, but the use of reservist forces presents itself as an obvious direction we might want to go down in order to develop a more permanent set of trained people across the country that have the same sorts of disciplines that the armed forces are able to offer in those circumstances?
  (Mr Hoon) Yes.

  317. Alice Hills from the Shrivenham Staff College has given us some evidence. She said that an associated danger is that terrorism may be at its most dangerous when it falls between overlapping governmental jurisdictions, such as foreigners exposed to domestic terrorism or between military or other enforcement, again pointing to the notion that in practical terms we have got to ensure that there is an integration—Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda in the UK—and that we cannot afford for different departments, possibly rival departments, to be—
  (Mr Hoon) I think that is a very fair point, and it is one that we need to have regard to. Ultimately the responsibility in the United Kingdom rests with the domestic department, the Home Office, and I believe that it remains appropriate for that to be the prime responsibility. However, in terms of what I was describing in terms of scaling up, there might come a point where the threat was so comprehensive, so difficult and so long lasting that then the civil power required the support of the military in precisely the way, if you like, as Patrick Mercer observed earlier, for example, as in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland the ultimate responsibility rests with the Chief Constable, but in terms of day-to-day decision-making there is enormously close co-operation between the military leadership and the civil leadership. Indeed, I am sure that in terms of individual decisions, skills and responsibilities, it would be foolish to say that the Chief Constable always decides or the GOC always decides; they work as a team and they work extremely well as a team. In trying to respond to the terrorist threat, there will be times when I am sure there is a military lead and some times when there is a police lead; it will depend on the skills that are available. I think the point about those skills is that we have to use military skills in the best way to deliver the policy objective that we are trying to achieve.
  (Mr Webb) I think it is this military responding to requests from the civil authorities or civil power which actually gives the clarity you are talking about. We are absolutely clear. If I may say so, there is a constitutional point here, I think, in that if you are talking to other countries or you look back into our history, where the armed forces have decided to put themselves onto the streets, it is a new constitutional situation. I go back several hundred years on this subject, into the principle that armed forces are called upon by the civil power. That may be as a result of a phone call from a police station to their local unit, but it might also be as a result of the fact that they are called upon in a civil contingences operation. There are very clear arrangements for handover to the military commander at the request of the civil power in that situation. So it is that clarity, I think, that helps us here and which actually then allows us to make the best use of our resources, because the armed forces really like to be very clear about their command control arrangements and like to know exactly where they are going and what they are going into.

  318. But a reserve force that is trained in a targeted way for certain things would be an excellent resource to offer the civil power, would it not?
  (Mr Webb) Yes, and they would call upon it and then obviously use the military command chain once they had called upon it, but the call-out would be from the civil side.
  (Mr Hoon) To re-emphasise this point, in a sense, many people would recognise what you are describing and what I have been describing as being part of the structure of this country through long periods of the Cold War. We had those kinds of structure in place then, and it is part of the point about collective memory as to whether we should not be thinking again about developing a structure that is comparable, although different, to the way in which we had these organisations in the past, not least because many of those structures assumed a much larger contingent of the armed forces than we presently have available. Charles Guthrie reminded me on the day of his retirement that when he joined the Army it was a million strong—it is not a million strong today—and therefore some of the assumptions during the Cold War were based on being able to call on resident battalions in the United Kingdom to supplement the civil power. That is not going to be quite so straightforward in the days when the army is around 100,000, and that is why we may well need new resources and to look at ways of refining our existing resources to deal with that problem.

  319. Finally, how do you balance the need for providing an effective military posture in the face of the current threats, against the long-established constitutional emphasis on the military supporting the civil authorities rather than the other way around? The current Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Bill might be seen as a move—a rather necessary one—towards a more proactive and rigorous control environment. Do we need to go further along that spectrum?
  (Mr Hoon) I think you had better ask the Home Secretary.

  Mr Cran: Long question: short answer.


2   1 The Home Secretary Chairs the Civil Contingencies Committee. Back


 
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