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Mr. Soames: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have paid tribute to the work done by all those who prepared for the operation and I shall do so again. I entirely endorse my hon. Friend's words. The problem was not so much about getting the equipment to
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks, but how does he reconcile the line of argument that he is pursuing with the NAO conclusion that the protection against chemical agents was good?
Mr. Soames: That is the line taken consistently throughout the whole report, but I have a number of other things to say on that point and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will do me the courtesy of answering them in more detail when he makes his speech.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): My hon. Friend is making some important points. He and I are involved with the same regimentthe King's Royal Hussars; I served with the 14th/20th and he served with the Royal Hussars, and he has great experience. Before the Secretary of State replies, will my hon. Friend speculate about why that essential equipment was not available when, clearly, considerable preparations were being made for the conflict?
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way once again. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) referred to deficiencies, and I wonder whether the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) would care to comment on the following quotation:
Mr. Soames: Yes, and I had intended to talk about that before the end of my speech, if the right hon. Gentleman would allow me to make a little further progress. Of course, there are always logistical problems, but our contention is that the problems that occurred were unacceptable and placed many of our troops unacceptably in harm's way, and that the replies given on these matters thus far by the right hon. Gentleman have been complacent.
Mr. Soames: The hon. Lady is an adornment to the Select Committee on Defence and she is very knowledgeable on these matters, but I disagree with the suggestion that there was not enough time to prepare. The possibility of the need to go to war had been known about for a long time. Part of our contention is that the steps necessary to get everything in place were not taken when they should have been.
For our part and more generally, we believe it to be unforgivable that soldiers should have been placed in harm's way without the right equipment to protect their lives, and I put it to the House that, in truth, there can be no greater dereliction of duty and failure of the highest office than for the Secretary of State to have ordered the deployment of troops into the field without the fullest available personal protection in such very hazardous circumstances. The House is entitled to ask how many lives, had things gone wrong, might have been lost, given the very serious nature of those equipment deficiencies.
What about the L110 Minimi machine guns and the grenade launchers? Some 587 Minimis and 520 underslung grenade launchers were ordered before the invasion. Many of the grenade launchers did not arrive until after the fighting had started and troops had limited time to train on the Minimi, although it was a great success. Indeed, the grenade launcher, regarded as a "key infantry capability", was issued to troops around Basra only after the city had fallen. Moving on, the report highlights many other instances of the MOD inexcusably failing to stockpile the necessary equipment in advance.
There are two key reasonsthis is the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton)why the Government got themselves into this bind. First, they failed to learn from the hard-won and important lessons of Saif Sareea 2 in Oman and had negligently allowed stocks of equipment to run down to save money. Secondly, because a sizeable number of their own Back Benchers were deeply hostile to military action, Ministers were not prepared to give instructions for the purchase of additional equipment in good time. They left it until the very last minute to avoid sending signals to their own party that they were indeed contemplating war against Iraq. In fact, what they were doing was trying to soothe the anti-war element into believing that it would all be sorted out at the UN. If they got wind last September that advanced preparations for war had been put in hand, the sincerity of the Government's political moves at the UN would have been completely undermined.
The result of that just-in-time policy was that, in some critical areas, the kit arrived just too late. Indeed, as the NAO report acknowledges, it is a tremendous tribute to the logisticians that so much was shipped and delivered to the theatre in time. But, as General Sir John Reith, the chief of joint operations, told the Defence Committee last year, "we came perilously close". Ministers must bear the responsibility for coming perilously close and for the other equipment deficiencies. That is the gravity of the charge against them.
The Government are no strangers to that practice, as it is now clearnot as I thought before all the documents were made available to the Hutton inquirythat the Prime Minster's most senior aides appear to have secured changes that altered the meaning of key intelligence material in the September dossier. The relationship of trust between the armed forces, intelligence services and No. 10 is a critical one and should never be undermined in that way again.
The Secretary of State has already said that he intends to procure an asset-tracking system. This is not before time. Indeed, it is frankly impossible to understand, given the lessons and problems of earlier operations, why that equipment is not already in place, not least since the Government have made so much of their deemed improvements in deployability in recent years.