CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

HCDC INQUIRY – STRAIT OF HORMUZ [EXTRACTS] – 9 September 2019

Panel One – Witnesses: Nick Childs and Rt Hon Admiral Lord West of Spithead.

Q1 Chairman [Dr Julian Lewis]: Good afternoon, and welcome to this special session about the circumstances under which a British-flagged tanker came to be seized in the Gulf. I should say at the beginning that the Committee is disappointed that, so far, we have not received the sort of co-operation that we expect to receive from the Ministry of Defence.

Today’s hearing is by way of a preliminary, with two experts who comprise the first panel. We are extremely grateful that the former Secretary of State for Defence, Penny Mordaunt, has agreed willingly to do a second panel by herself. We are conscious that she has not got all the documentary support that we would have expected her to have been supplied with by the MoD, and we will do our best to ensure that she is not disadvantaged by that omission.

Lord West and Mr Childs, will you just say a few words about your background and experience for the record?

Lord West: Yes. I joined the Navy in 1965, and have served all over the world in numerous types of ships. I was the Director of Naval Intelligence and the Chief of Defence Intelligence. I was Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet, and First Sea Lord. I know the Gulf – I first served there in 1966, and I have been there on numerous occasions since.

Nick Childs: I am Nick Childs. I am the senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies – so the senior naval specialist there. I have been with the institute for just over four years. Before that, for most of my career I was a journalist, mainly with the BBC: more than 30 years with the BBC. In that time, I focused particularly on defence and security matters and international relations with a particular attachment to naval affairs.

Chairman, you know that I have written a couple of books on the modern history of the Royal Navy. In my previous incarnation as a journalist, I also have a pedigree in the Gulf that goes back not quite as far as Lord West’s, but I cut my teeth in terms of reporting in the Gulf in the 1980s in what we then called the Gulf war between Iran and Iraq. That also included the tanker war of the late 1980s. I have been interested in that region since.

Dr Lewis: I am extremely grateful to both of you for sharing your expertise with us this afternoon. Please make allowances for the slightly unusual circumstances in which Parliament finds itself at the moment. There will be different members of the Committee slipping out and rejoining us at various times during the afternoon, but I am sure that one way or another we will cover the waterfront.

[ … ]

Q9 Dr Lewis: Can I delve a little bit further into this? We are told that the reason for the seizure, from our point of view, was the destination of the cargo – namely, that it was going to Syria, which was against EU sanctions – yet the suggestion has been that the United States were very keen that we should seize the vessel. They, presumably, have got reasons other than EU sanctions in the forefront of their mind. Can you throw any light on the attitude of the United States and why it was so keen that this tanker should be seized and why, indeed, it was so concerned when the tanker was ultimately released?

Lord West: I think the American interest in the tanker was the fact that it was full of Iranian oil, and the Americans are intent on stopping the Iranians from exporting oil to any countries, as part of their sanctions. That was the American interest in that particular tanker. Now, as I say, there are subjects of interest where the Americans may have an interest for a reason and we may have an interest for a reason, but they are targets of interest that are then tracked.

I have no doubt whatever – although, as I say, I was not party to these discussions – that the Americans were very keen to arrest this ship. They did not want it to be able to sell Iranian oil because of their sanctions against Iran. That is not the reason why the action was taken in Gibraltar, but I am sure it suited the Americans very well.

Nick Childs: Again, I would generally agree with the thrust of what Lord West laid out. Having said that, it may well be that elements of the intelligence picture and putting together the progress and activities of the ship may have included, in the standard sort of way, some kind of sharing of intelligence with the United States. I have seen the speculation out in the public domain about the impulses that then proceeded in terms of the seizure, but that is all the speculation I have seen.

My sense of it has been rather like Lord West’s: that it was specifically as a result of an assessment from the Gibraltar authorities upwards about the issues around the potential destination of the ship’s cargo – and not only the fact that that impinged on EU sanctions, but specifically that element in which EU sanctions had been enacted into Gibraltarian law.

Q10 Dr Lewis: I will start this one with you, Nick. Was it not blindingly obvious that Iran, which has had hostage-taking as its signature strategy from the days of the Ayatollah’s revolution in 1979, would try to retaliate with the seizure of a British-flagged ship, even if they had not explicitly threatened to do so, within a short period of 4 July, when the first seizure was made?

Nick Childs: I think it would be true to say that that was going to be a very high likelihood in the context of not only this specific event but the fact that this had been part of, if you like, a series of escalatory moves, the backdrop of which was a growing tension between Iran and the United States in particular, and a growing tension around the fact that the Iranian economy was under some considerable pressure. Therefore, they were looking for, if you like, elements of signalling and escalation to underscore their level of concern.

I think it must have been – my understanding is that it was, in terms of the defence assessment of the potential implications of this – that there would be anger in Tehran, in all elements of the Iranian leadership, over those events. I am not sure that it is necessarily the case that it would have been possible then specifically to say, “that will manifest itself in a very specific response”. Certainly, if I had been looking at this, one of the issues I would have raised as a concern would have been that if there were going to be a reaction it was not necessarily possible to predict exactly where that reaction would be and what form it would take.

Q11 Dr Lewis: Lord West, you actually predicted in the House of Lords that something of this sort would happen, I believe. Is that right?

Lord West: Absolutely. Will you allow me to give you a little sequence? I am sorry about this. On 13 June there were those two attacks with mines or whatever they were on the two tankers in the Gulf. I tried to get a private notice question in, asking for an assessment from the Government of what actions were being taken to look after shipping. It was not allowed by the Government, but hopefully they were aware that I had asked it and someone was looking at this.

On 18 June, I asked a PQ – “What action is being taken to protect UK merchant shipping?” – and was given a bland and not very good response. I spoke with Earl Howe, who is the Minister there, and said:

“Hardwired into the DNA of naval officers at Dartmouth after day one is to move towards the sound of the guns, and the sound of the guns is in the Gulf. We need to start deploying some ships because something is going to happen.”

Then on 4 July the Grace 1 was captured. I wrote some letters to the papers and spoke on the BBC, ITV and Sky saying that this was a real concern – a real threat. I tried to raise a PNQ asking exactly what actions were being taken to safeguard UK shipping, because it was under threat. I know how you can safeguard UK shipping; there are ways of doing it.

There were a series of intel reports saying that the Iranians were about to do something. This was broad intel among the shipping community, not hard intel from the Americans or our own special agencies. On 10 July, Montrose stopped the British Heritage from being taken. I raised another PQ about what actions might be being taken to stop such an attack and, lo and behold, on 19 July the Stena Impero was captured. That was hardly a surprise, was it?

Q12 Dr Lewis: Why are we not surprised?

Lord West: It was hardly a surprise. I think that the actions we took were poor and that we did not look after UK shipping. We are responsible. The ships our Royal Navy protects are those that are flagged to the UK. Having ships flagged to the UK is useful for us economically and we are responsible for looking after them, but we were not looking after them. We did not take control of UK shipping going through the Strait of Hormuz. Ships could have been held in safe areas; even with the limited numbers of ships we had there – and they were too limited because we should have deployed earlier – we could have done something. I am, as you can probably see, quite angry about this, because I think it was a real failure.

[ … ]

Q21 Dr Lewis: If you had been confronted, as commander in chief of the fleet, with the scenario of the Gulf and the sort of threat that the Iranians could mount, what sort of system would have been adequate to protect British shipping? Wouldn’t it have been fairly obvious to introduce something like a mini-convoy system, for example? Bearing in mind that the last sighting of the Grace 1 under its new name was very close to the Syrian port of Tartus after it had several days with its transponder turned off, it does rather look as if the assurances given by the Iranian Government that this oil would not be discharged to a sanctioned state have been broken.

Lord West: Absolutely. I said on the BBC, when they were talking about releasing the Grace 1 because they were going to be given assurances from the Iranians, that Iranian assurances aren’t worth the paper they are written on, if they are written on paper, because they lie. You just can’t trust them. It looks as though they knew jolly well that that is where it was going. It looks as though that is where it has gone to discharge its oil.

Q22 Dr Lewis: And so your recommendation would have been, from the moment the decision was taken that the Grace 1 was going to be seized and the British were going to be held responsible, there should have been a ramping up of naval assets in the Gulf against an entirely predictable piece of retaliation from the Iranians. Ideally, how would that protection have worked? It has been stated on the Floor of the House by the Foreign Secretary, for example, that the owners of the ship that was seized by the Iranians did not co-operate in giving 24 hours’ notice to the British of their intention to sail through the strait.

Lord West: This is always a problem, but we have mechanisms for the control of merchant shipping. I believe that, certainly on 4 July, we should have started implementing those methods of control of merchant shipping. There is as reservist pool that goes to Dubai and sits there – it is left over from the time of the tanker war – so there is residual capability there. I think we should have made a serious effort for full control of British-flagged merchant shipping. You can look at the AIS feeds and see exactly where these various ships are. You can see where they are meant to be going, because they lay down their voyages. We could have taken much firmer control of that.

I believe that on 4 July, we should also have immediately moved Duncan and looked at another ship to come – probably Kent or Defender – and be moved up the batting order. We are very short of ships, as Nick has said – there is a real issue here – but we could have done that, and I believe we should have done it. This is an operational requirement. You could call it an emergency and take action. You don’t just sit with your eyes closed and your head in the sand and hope it all goes away, because these things don’t go away. The Iranians have a track record on this sort of thing. I believe that that is what we would should have done. We would have then been able to say to ships, “Right, we know you are going through here.” We could have called them up – we have certain rights over British-registered ships – and told them, “Wait in your current position,” or got them to anchor further down off Muscat, and then when we had collected three or four together, we could have taken them through.

During the tanker war, of course, we found that lots of shipping companies – for example, all the Taiwanese ones – reflagged their ships to the red ensign, because we protected British-flagged ships and we controlled them by doing control of shipping and using convoys. I think we should have instituted that right back on the day that – in fact, we should have been thinking about it when it was known that they were about to try to capture the Grace 1. Certainly, from the moment it was done, we should have done that.

Q23 Dr Lewis: Nick, you will remember that the strategic defence review of 1998 envisaged a reluctant reduction from 35 to 32 frigates and destroyers. We now have only 13 frigates and six destroyers, and not all of them can be at sea at the same time. Do you agree with former Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood, who said in the context of these rather inglorious events that the size of the Royal Navy is simply too small to manage the United Kingdom’s interests across the globe?

Nick Childs: In short, I think that would be my view. If I can unpack that a little bit –

Dr Lewis: Please do.

Nick Childs: You are right about the drawdown over a long period of time. Another interesting element of the statistics, if you like, is that if you look into the IISS’s “Military Balance” back in the late 1980s – we had the last tanker war in 1987 to ’88 – the Royal Navy order of battle of destroyers and frigates was 49. We are dealing with 19 now. I think, particularly since the 2010 SDSR, with the reduction to 19 destroyers and frigates, there was an understanding that that was below the operational requirement for standing tasks and commitments for the Navy then, but it was a risk that was being taken in the hope and expectation that it could be reversed at some point or other.

The fact is that, since then, those requirements have, if anything, increased. We have had the resurgence of concern about Russia in the North Atlantic; we are having the transformation of the Navy back into a carrier-centric Navy, which will provide a whole range of extra strategic options and a significant stepping back up the ladder of strategic capability, so far as power projection is concerned, but which is also imposing costs on fulfilling all the other commitments; and then there is the declared ambition to have a forward presence further out into the Asia-Pacific region. All those are compounding the overstretch, if you like, of capabilities.

There are ways of mitigating that, and of bringing in new technology in the future, to help with forward presence. The potential increase in hull numbers, although admittedly some way off, if it happens at all, will mitigate that. However, at the moment, there is a significant overstretch, which is likely to be compounded by a long-term requirement – if there is one – for extra presence, once again, in the Gulf.

Lord West: We have global commitments. We are a permanent member of the Security Council. Global merchant shipping is run from the UK. We still actually have quite a lot of ships that are UK-flagged, which we are responsible for looking after. We have 14 dependencies worldwide that we are responsible for looking after. We are the biggest investor in south Asia and the south-east Asia Pacific rim of any European country. This means that we have global commitments. For that, we need a maritime force.

I have no doubt whatsoever that going down to 19 destroyers and frigates is too few. For one ship on deployment – one ship away – you need three ships. We are talking about, effectively, six ships deployed. That is pathetic for a great maritime power with the commitments that we have. We have slowly slid down into this position, I am afraid, under successive Governments. It is unsatisfactory, and it is quite clear that, at some stage, this is going to bite us. It is biting us to an extent here in the Strait of Hormuz, but there could be a situation somewhere in the world that is a lot worse than that.

It is absolutely crucial that we actually start building some ships as a matter of some urgency. I am delighted we now have a shipbuilding tsar – I don’t like people being called tsars, but I gather that is what he is called – someone responsible for shipbuilding, but our shipbuilding strategy, which has been in place now for some months, is a bit of a joke, because a shipbuilding strategy with no ships being ordered is about as much use as a ferry company with no ferries, so we bloody well need to get going, don’t we? Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that word.

Martin Docherty-Hughes: Say it again!

Dr Lewis: A bit of salty sea language. So, if we can’t do this by ourselves, the question arises as to with whom we should be co-operating. John, I think you are going to take up that theme.

Q24 John Spellar: Why do you think that on 24 and 30 June, the US asked for UK naval engagement in the Gulf? Is there a practical contribution, given what you have just said, that the Royal Navy could have made, or was the US looking particularly for political support?

Lord West: Shall I kick off? First, I will just say this. The Chairman was talking about alliances. Most things are done in alliances, so that was an absolutely fair statement. Indeed, that has been used as an excuse to drive down the numbers of ships we have, I’m afraid. But I absolutely accept that everything, pretty well, will be done in alliances. Very seldom will we have to do something on our own.

As regards the situation in the Strait of Hormuz, the Americans see our Navy as very important and very useful. They like to be tied to it. Indeed, when we talk of the special relationship with America, the biggest part of that is the intelligence-sharing aspect, the intelligence world; and the other one is the nuclear, and the nuclear submarine, world – that naval link. They see our Navy as an excellent Navy, which it is; it’s excellent. They are very worried it is going down in size, but if they can work with it, they are delighted to.

I think it is understandable, as we share the Fifth Fleet base in Bahrain with them, we work very closely with them. They rely on us for mine-hunting capability, pretty well. We are joined very closely together, and I can understand that they would want us to be involved.

Having said all that, realpolitik is realpolitik and we must not delude ourselves. I am sure the Americans would have been delighted to pull us in with them, because in the context of the debate over – is it the JCPOA? I always get the initials for it wrong. Trump has stepped out of that, whereas we and the other countries want it to continue. The Americans would be very keen to pull us out of that grouping and make us part of the Trump view that actually we must penalise Iran; we must put pressure on them – make it worse.

So there are those two strands – I don’t know whether I explained that very well. Yes, they would like to use us and utilise that, but it would be silly to think that there were not other aspects as well.

[ … ]

Q34 Dr Lewis: Thank you. I would like to start to draw it together now. What does this say about our decision-making arrangements, and what lessons can be drawn, for example in regard to the functionality of the National Security Council? I get the impression, Lord West, that as a uniformed former very senior military adviser, you do not think military advice has been at the forefront of how this scenario played out. Would that be correct?

Lord West: As I said, I would be amazed if naval advice within the MoD was not that we should have got more assets there earlier and that we should have taken control of merchant shipping earlier. I would be amazed if that was not the advice that was given, so I can only assume that within the MoD someone was saying, “No, we don’t agree with you”, for whatever the reasons were. I think those reasons were probably to do with the spending round coming up and money – a plethora of reasons, some of which Nick was going through – rather than realising that when it comes to military affairs and when there is a crisis, you must focus on that with your military straight away. In that sense, I don’t think there was.

I would love to know whether the NSC actually made a judgment. They should have been making judgments. I know it’s boring that I’m telling you I was saying these things to the Government, but they should have been looking at this and making judgments then. I bet you they weren’t. I would be interested to know.

We have got problems in this country. For example, we had a national security strategy that did not even mention that we are an island, but let us forget about that. There are problems, but the NSC should have been looking at this on 13 June in some detail. I would love to know whether they were. I know you can say that the deployments of military forces might not be something they should focus on, but I think they should look at that. I would love to know what advice was coming from the MoD to the NSC. This is a failure. If I was seeing these things and saying these things to Government and putting down questions in the House and asking them, with all of that timescale – there must have been an awful lot of people who understood that. How the hell did this just not happen? I think how it did not happen needs to be looked at, because you can bet your bottom dollar that this will happen again. Without a doubt, this will happen again somewhere, and we need to get it right.

Q35 Dr Lewis: Do you agree, Nick?

Nick Childs: In general, I would agree. I would throw one extra element into this, and it goes to some extent to what Lord West is saying. In this particular instance, I do not think we can ignore the fact that this was a naval and maritime issue of a type that we have not focused on in a significant way for a significant amount of time. That perhaps goes to the issue in terms of the national security apparatus. A general point I would make, albeit that the NSC has to cover a whole gamut of different issues, balances and trade-offs, is that this may be an example of where there is a problem when the expert military advice, in the particular scenario we are talking about, doesn’t get fully fed up the chain to the final decision makers. Whether the naval input in this case was fully reflected at the top level, when it came to making decisions and policy choices, is in the back of my mind. I just throw that out there.

Q36 Dr Lewis: Do you feel that the arrival of the National Security Council has interposed a barrier or created a gap between the top military advisers at the heads of the Armed Forces and the decision makers in Government? Do you feel military advice is sufficiently direct when it is just channelled through perhaps a single individual?

Lord West: It goes through the CDS, doesn’t it?

Dr Lewis: Exactly.

Lord West: I think there is sometimes a risk there. The fact that we don’t have the Chiefs of Staff committee in the way that there used to be a Chiefs of Staff committee can be a weakness. I know all the good things about jointery and that sort of thing, but equally these are different domains and very useful things used to come out of the Chiefs of Staff committee and you can still then focus it through. There is a risk there, but I wouldn’t want to overstress it.

On the point Nick makes about naval advice, in any wash-up on this, I would love to know if the Navy was advising that. If it wasn’t, I would myself want to chop a few legs off. Luckily I’m not around to do that anymore. As I say, that is hard-wired into your DNA from day one at Dartmouth. You move to the sound of the guns and you move your assets. Indeed, before jointery really took over – going back 20 years – the First Sea Lord and the Commander in Chief would have been moving those assets and then would have said to the Government, “By the way, I’ve moved these assets here.” That would have happened. That’s the difference in where we are now.

I’d love to know if that advice was there and exactly what the sequencing of advice was, because it did not work.

Q37 Martin Docherty-Hughes: Lord West, who would hold that advice back from senior Ministers? If there was enough concern from the naval service, which has led to this situation for a ship registered in my constituency, who would hold that back from Ministers?

Lord West: It is not done in such an obvious way, but certainly, in my experience, at the very end of my time in the MoD, I think sometimes Ministers did not get the pure advice from a single service. It was somehow being lost within the civil service, within the centre, and that did not come up as clear advice to them. I believe that sometimes the Minister wasn’t given the opportunity to hear that. You had to really go and batter on their doors to try to do that.

Q38 Martin Docherty-Hughes: It is obvious that someone in the military structure is making advice, via this system, to Ministers, but somebody who is not in the military structure decides that it’s not really that relevant to hand over to Ministers.

Lord West: Well, this can happen. When I was First Sea Lord I advised very firmly that we should not have gone into Helmand province. That advice from me, as First Sea Lord, wasn’t given to Ministers.

Q39 Dr Lewis: Finally, I would like to read you an extract from a letter from the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, about this inquiry. Talking about the Government’s contingency planning for the Iranian response to the seizure of Grace 1, he says:

“As it is a live operation with extremely delicate defence and diplomatic engagements, the Ministry of Defence are unable to explain the detail of even recent planning. Exposing even recent planning publicly would undermine the very operation and effect we are seeking to achieve in the Gulf, and thereby impose unnecessary risk on both the national interest and our armed forces personnel in the region. For this reason, the MoD will be constrained from explaining all of the detail in a publicised forum.”

You have seen the sorts of questions we’ve been asking for the last hour and a bit. Is there anything that we have been raising in a publicised forum that has in anyway compromised or endangered our armed forces, in your professional judgment?

Lord West: I don’t believe there is anything that would; otherwise, I wouldn’t have answered them. I don’t believe there is anything that has endangered our forces involved in operations. What I can’t make a judgment on is whether there is some decision making to do on a political basis, and to do with allies and things. Whether there is something there, I just don’t know; there might be, but I don’t know.

Dr Lewis: Obviously, however, if a witness gives an answer and says, “I really can’t go into that for sensitive operational reasons”, any sensible Committee would accept that. We will certainly return to the question of getting evidence from officials, which I hope will answer some of the points that you felt you could not deal with because of lack of first-hand involvement.

Can I thank both of you? We are right on time, at quarter past four, and I would like to express the Committee’s thanks and ask Penny Mordaunt to take her seat.

* * *

Panel Two – Witness: Rt Hon Penny Mordaunt MP, former Secretary of State for Defence.

Q40 Dr Lewis: Penny, I would like to thank you most warmly, on behalf of the Committee, for your willingness to do this, particularly as you obviously do not have the support that you would usually expect to have, in terms of an official, were you still Secretary of State, though you were Secretary of State at the time.

I would like to assure you that if there is anything where you feel your memory is unreliable, or you’re making your best guess at some fact that you are not in a position to confirm, we will fully understand that. I believe you would like to start off by making a short, three-minute statement about the overall situation, to the best of your memory and with the information that you have managed to extract from the Ministry of Defence.

Penny Mordaunt: Yes, thank you. First of all, I should refer the Committee to my interests with regard to the Royal Navy. As the situation is ongoing, I know the MoD has agreed to provide a private briefing for the Committee. I will err on the side of caution if I think my evidence might undermine the current operation and ongoing efforts to protect shipping.

I am very pleased to give evidence today, as well as to help the Committee with regard to a timeline of events, which I have assembled and which I can go into in my evidence, if that is helpful. However, I think that the following five points are the salient ones. 

First of all, regarding the Royal Navy and the MoD, including the fourth floor, there has not been a cigarette paper between them on the advice that they have put to me and that I have put to others. I have been supported in that by CDS, so, again, he has represented the views of the Royal Navy at every forum that we have been at together. They have done an incredible job of protecting large numbers of vessels going through the straits – not all, it should be noted, British interests. We have been doing this for other nations, as we always do, and seeing ships through those waters. It has been a relentless job for HMS Montrose, the MTO and other naval personnel, over a sustained period of time, and they deserve credit and our thanks for all they are doing. When you have that briefing, I think you will find that the examination of that will stand that up.

While I recognise that a much bigger fleet and working with other nations that have an interest in securing these sea lanes would make a task easier, it would not yield enough ships to protect and provide escorts for every vessel. The key to protecting shipping is co-ordination and organisation of merchant shipping, so that naval assets can be used to best effect. That would definitely have made a difference in the case of the Stena Impero. I think it would have made a difference in that particular instance. The use of other assets and personnel – either naval or private sector – to protect shipping is possible only with the agreement of merchant ships and, in my view, a different set of rules of engagement. I suggest you might like to explore that with the MoD.

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, there must be greater and continual ministerial oversight of situations through ministerial Cobras. We must provide that forum, where you can thrash out those tensions between the political imperatives and concerns of the situation, and what is operationally required – in this case, to protect shipping. That, I think, did not happen, despite several Secretaries of State pushing for it, and it should have happened. In such scenarios, it is vital that those leading on the political strategy are around the table with those Departments that are carrying out the operations. This was a highly complex and politically sensitive situation, with fine judgments being made. In my view, only at those ministerial Cobras do you get the right level of clarity on all those fronts, and in the detailed discussions that are needed between Ministers to make such decisions. You can’t run or take operational decisions in real time through NSC meetings.

Fifthly, and finally, the United States is a critical partner in any joint operation to protect shipping in the Gulf. Those are the five points I wanted to make.

Q41 Dr Lewis: Thank you very much. May I clear up a couple of things before we get into the more rigorous questioning? On the Cobra point, I believe I am right in saying that when the Foreign Secretary made his statement on 22 July, the seizure of the Stena Impero had already happened – that statement was made on the Monday, and he was talking about Cobra meetings that had been held over the previous weekend and the last couple of days. That was when the “retaliation”, as the Iranians would put it, had already taken place. Are you telling us that, as far as you know, you were not able to secure any Cobra meetings between the taking control of the ship off Gibraltar and the seizing of the second ship all those days later?

Penny Mordaunt: Throughout that period – I have a detailed timeline – consistent requests for ministerial Cobras were not acted on.

Q42 Dr Lewis: Requests made by you?

Penny Mordaunt: Made by me, and I can give you details of when and why, and the reasons given.

Q43 Dr Lewis: To whom?

Penny Mordaunt: To various people, but ultimately, through her military assistant, to the Prime Minister.

Q44 Martin Docherty-Hughes: Thank you for your statement. I am utterly gobsmacked that your orders as a Secretary of State, a Minister of the Crown, were not carried out. Is that what you are saying?

Penny Mordaunt: No, that is not what I am saying. It would perhaps be helpful to run through the timeline of events.

Q45 Dr Lewis: Before we do that, who decides whether a Cobra meeting will take place?

Penny Mordaunt: I have been told that it is the Prime Minister who decides on that.

Q46 Dr Lewis: Presumably on the basis of advice from the National Security Adviser, or of somebody else, or of the Cabinet Secretary, which in this case happened to be one and the same person.

Penny Mordaunt: I would imagine that a range of people give advice to the Prime Minister, but I have been told clearly in my requests that it is the Prime Minister who decides. My final, and fifth, attempt to secure such a meeting was finally successful and resulted in that first ministerial Cobra on 10 July. That was the first meeting we were able to secure for Ministers. Obviously, there were NSC meetings, but in terms of getting the traction that I described, that was the first ministerial Cobra.

Q47 Dr Lewis: So, there was no Cobra meeting before the decision to go ahead with the Royal Marines taking control of the Grace 1.

Penny Mordaunt: There was not a ministerial Cobra, but on that issue I would not have expected there to be. That is for the Ministry of Defence. It is an operational matter. It is a request. It is obviously very sensitive and of high-level secrecy, so you would not have expected that to have gone to a ministerial Cobra meeting.

Q48 Dr Lewis: After the seizure, or impounding, of that ship had taken place, you were straight away requesting Cobra meetings – is that right? But you didn’t get them until the 10th.

Penny Mordaunt: Including prior to the Grace 1.

Q49 Dr Lewis: So, you were hoping that there would be a Cobra meeting before the –

Penny Mordaunt: On the wider situation in the Gulf. Clearly, there had been, from May and before, all sorts of tensions. Since the US petrochemical sanctions had been put in place, there were clearly further attacks going on on other vessels, so I was very keen that we have ministerial oversight over Cobra meetings. Throughout the whole situation there were officials Cobra meetings but not with Ministers.

Q50 Dr Lewis: Once again we come back to this question that there seems to be a bit of a disconnect these days. As you may be able to tell from my line of questioning, to some extent I put it down to the interposition of the National Security Council between the military advisers and the MoD on the one hand and the Prime Minister on the other. Do you feel that there is insufficient linkage between the people qualified to give military advice and the person in charge of taking ultimately the key decisions?

Penny Mordaunt: I would say a couple of things. First, although there are some very important issues in the timeline that the Committee should be aware of, in dealing with this situation that has been going on for a long time, operations have been in place, working with the US and other partners, to protect shipping in this area. That has been going for a long time, but the questions are: how did that need to step up and how did it need to change in the light of the threats? The NSC is an evolving body. I think it is a good initiative, not least for the reason that Lord West gave – lack of ministerial oversight in 2006 and so forth in Afghanistan – so I think it is a useful forum, and it is evolving and improving. It is a forum for discussing things strategically. It discusses things sometimes thematically, sometimes about a region. What it is not there to do, I think, is to take operational decisions on a real-time basis or to get into the detail that you need when you balance judgments that the Committee has pointed to – the political strategy and judgments versus the operational options in front of you. Throughout this whole process – I won’t go into the detail of what the submissions were – the Ministry of Defence was putting various options to the National Security Council. But what was clear – this is why I asked for this forum –  is that there needed to be a much more granular meeting where we could thrash the issues out, and not just within the timeframe that we had for NSC meetings.

Q51 Martin Docherty-Hughes: I am sure, Penny, you recognise that because the Stena Impero’s registered HQ is in my constituency, and although I am a member of the Committee, I had a constituency concern. In terms of the acceptance of a ministerial Cobra meeting on 10 July, you had requested ministerial Cobra meetings a full five times. When did you make the first application? Was it the NSC that rebuffed that?

Mr Francois: You said 11 July.

Penny Mordaunt: I can tell you that 14 June was the last time I attempted to do this verbally. I was doing this through my private office and they were having either phone calls or face-to-face conversations. After 14 June, I decided I wanted an audit trail of this, and I got them to put it in writing. I think I tried three times before the 14th. On 19 June, I sent a formal recorded written request via my MA to the Prime Minister’s MA that we needed a ministerial Cobra meeting, and I expressed that my concerns were that we were very likely to be facing having a ship taken and we needed certain operational decisions to be taken. On 21 June, there was an officials Cobra meeting, and on 25 June, and then we had an NSC on 25 June where we discussed various matters to do with the situation.

On 27 June, I received a reply to my formal note saying: “The decision to call a ministerial Cobra is for the Prime Minister. Events to date have not been judged to warrant this. However, Ministers and the Prime Minister have been kept fully informed throughout. Ministerial decisions have been taken when necessary and appropriate. Cobra officials have been keeping under review whether ministerial escalation should be recommended, and to date has considered the National Security Council the appropriate forum in which to support a ministerial discussion. If there are significant further developments, then a decision to call a Cobra ministerial or to include the Gulf of Oman as a topic on the National Security Council will sit with the Prime Minister.”

Q52 Dr Lewis: Who was the note from?

Penny Mordaunt: That was from the Cabinet Office.

Q53 Dr Lewis: Was it signed by anyone in particular?

Penny Mordaunt: Yes, but I won’t give that in open session. I then put in another formal request and insisted that –

Q54 Martin Docherty-Hughes: This is on the 27th?

Penny Mordaunt: I don’t have the exact time.

Q55 Martin Docherty-Hughes: This is now the second formal request?

Penny Mordaunt: Yes, this is the second formal written request – it would have been, I think, on the 27th – that I wished not only to discuss the operational matters at the next NSC but for my request for a ministerial Cobra to be heard at the NSC, which it was. That was heard on the 9th, which led to the ministerial meeting on the 10th. That was the timeline.

Q56 Martin Docherty-Hughes: That is a full 10 days after that second formal request. It took another 10 days to have a ministerial Cobra meeting.

Penny Mordaunt: It was at the next NSC, which took place on the 9th, where that formal request was heard and granted.

Q57 Dr Lewis: Will you let us have a copy of the timeline after the session, perhaps, if there is anything you can let us have?

Penny Mordaunt: Yes, I can send you that.

Dr Lewis: That would be very helpful.

Penny Mordaunt: My timeline runs from 13 May through to when I left the Department.

Q58 John Spellar: Briefly pursuing that, did you actually seek a meeting with the Prime Minister to bring this matter to a head?

Penny Mordaunt: I met the Prime Minister frequently. I will put it in these terms: I was seeking every possible way to ensure that she, but also other colleagues, knew of my concerns. From memory, I also spoke with the Secretary of State for Transport, who felt similarly, and the Foreign Secretary.

[ … ]

Q71 Mr Francois: Okay. You have given us a detailed run-through of the timelines. All this happened while Theresa May was Prime Minister. Don’t you think it extraordinary that if a Defence Secretary, of all people in Government, requests a meeting of Cobra, No. 10 does not agree? Of all the Departments to ask for a meeting of Cobra, if the MoD, for military reasons, asks No. 10 to convene Cobra, don’t you think it extraordinary that No.10 should say no?

Penny Mordaunt: There is perhaps a lack of understanding about why ministerial oversight is critical and the value that ministerial Cobras bring to the decision-making process. Throughout this whole period, we have had very high calibre officials working together, looking at the situation – my MoD officials in there as well. But I think that until you have the Secretary of State for Transport, the Secretary of State for Defence, the Foreign Secretary, the Treasury and others around the table together – thrashing out some of the very difficult and fine judgments that needed to be taken, in this case, balancing the political imperatives against what was operationally going to be needed – you don’t really get to the heart of it. Fundamentally, you don’t get decisions made, never mind the right decisions. For me, that was extremely frustrating. I think it is wrong; it has to be appreciated that, in a scenario such as this, that is what you need, and you need to be having them daily. You need to be dealing with the situation in real time. Just to have official oversight of it, great though those people are, is not going to give you what you need.

Q72 Mr Francois: Just to give a different example, during the floods in the West Country in 2014, Cobra was in almost daily session, with Ministers from the relevant Departments very closely overseeing what was and was not happening. Another example – forgive me, Chairman – is that when we had the chaos at Gatwick because of the drones, Cobra never met. The point of Cobra, as I think we have understood it, is, in time of crisis, to bring together senior Ministers to assess the situation and give very clear political direction to officials about what must happen. You have given a very diplomatic answer, but I put it to you again: is it not absolutely extraordinary that, when a Defence Secretary says, “Prime Minister, I really think Cobra should get together.”, No. 10 says no?

Penny Mordaunt: I think there was a great difference in my experience of the Cobra set-up between my time as MinAF and my time as Secretary of State. It had been hollowed out – not necessarily on the official front, but for ministerial oversight. Clearly, on the Defence side of things, our operational drumbeat was much reduced from what it has been in previous years, but for these kinds of situations, where there is a commercial aspect, political or foreign affairs elements to the decision making and a need to get people around the table to thrash these things out, that is not where it needed to be – including, when those meetings take place, the back-room support available.

Q73 Mr Francois: We have both sat in it, in our different roles as MinAF, Penny. You said something very interesting there; you talked about Cobra being “hollowed out”. During the Welsh floods, for instance, David Cameron was the Prime Minister. He was a very different Prime Minister from Theresa May. Can you just expand a bit on what you mean by hollowed out?

Penny Mordaunt: I would describe my experience of Cobra meetings as MinAF as being properly resourced; you had the expertise on hand, and they were regular ministerial meetings. During my time as Secretary of State, when you had a ministerial Cobra, the back-room operation was not there. I quickly changed that, but that was my experience coming in to the Department.

Mr Francois: All right, thank you.

Q74 Dr Lewis: May I just ask who is in charge of Cobra? Who does that Cobra come under, in terms of the most senior official? Is it the Cabinet Secretary, or a national security adviser?

Penny Mordaunt: My understanding is that it is Cabinet. At one point it was due to come to Defence, but it is not in Defence’s remit.

Q75 Dr Lewis: Cabinet Office or Cabinet Secretary?

Penny Mordaunt: It is the Cabinet Office.

Q76 Mr Francois: It is held in the Cabinet Office, isn’t it, and it is the Cabinet Office that provide the secretariat.

Penny Mordaunt: Yes. In terms of triggering Cobra, it is clearly Cabinet Office and ultimately the PM.

Q77 Dr Lewis: Can I ask one last thing before Mark moves on? Would you say that the reason for the Cobra meetings’ not being granted until the situation had deteriorated a lot further was mainly because of administrative hollowing out, or do you think there was a political dimension to do with not wishing to ramp up tension in the context of the Gulf crisis and the different approaches of America and the United Kingdom?

Penny Mordaunt: I think it is a sensitive issue, and therefore people would want to keep tight control of it. But I do also think that fundamentally there is a lack – this is just my sense, appreciation of the importance – not just in terms of it being really important to have ministerial civilian oversight but in terms of the value that is brought by Ministers, who ultimately can take political decisions but can also make decisions that change the options that officials have – of having those types of meeting. Just relying on the NSC – as I say, I think it’s a really important body – for these real-time events is not enough. I just think there is a lack of understanding about that.

Dr Lewis: Thank you for being so frank. Martin, you want to ask a question – very briefly.

Q78 Martin Docherty-Hughes: Just briefly, Chair; thank you. Penny, I just want to go back slightly in that timeframe. You said, I believe, that on 14 June, through your ministerial aide, you put a request to the Prime Minister’s ministerial aide for a Cobra meeting. I can’t imagine that, as Secretary of State, you would do that on a regular basis. I imagine that, as Secretary of State, you would do it only if you thought there was a real reason to have a Cobra meeting. So were you slightly taken aback that the ministerial aide from the Prime Minister’s office came back and said No.

Penny Mordaunt: In fairness, I had a very short stint as Secretary of State and for much of it I was asking for ministerial Cobras. But if the Secretary of State for Defence and also, I believe, the Secretary of State for Transport and, possibly, the Foreign Secretary were asking for that forum, I think it is quite wrong that it wasn’t dealt with.

Q79 Martin Docherty-Hughes: Would that decision have been made by the ministerial aide or by the then Prime Minister?

Penny Mordaunt: The response that I received to that final request was from the Cabinet Office. The ministerial aide was my military assistant; it was MA to MA. They would not be the decision makers; they are the communication route.

Q80 Martin Docherty-Hughes: But that military assistant came back on 14 June and told your MA that the verbal request had not been granted. I take it that that verbal request would have been turned down by the Prime Minister.

Penny Mordaunt: I don’t know that. I don’t know that, but in terms of –

Q81 Dr Lewis: But would officials have turned it down without asking the Prime Minister first?

Penny Mordaunt: I can speculate, but I only want to give you factual answers – so good luck with that one!

Dr Lewis: Fair enough. Mark, please carry on.

Q82 Mr Francois: Following the raising of the security level for British vessels on 9 July and HMS Montrose’s intervention to protect a British vessel on 11 July, were there any plans to send additional assets to the region before the Stena Impero was captured on 19 July?

Penny Mordaunt: Yes. Throughout this process – so, way beyond these events – the Ministry of Defence was putting up a whole range of options to the NSC. I’ll just go through the timeline. On the 9th, there was an NSC, and that’s when my request and my concerns were heard and the Cobra ministerial meeting was granted. During that ministerial Cobra, which was on 10 July, the attempt on the British Heritage was made. There were a number of actions that we got a decision on. I won’t go into the detail, but it was beefing up what we were doing. There were particular legal issues that needed to be resolved. We placed a liaison officer into the Department for Transport. And on 11 July, I took HMS Duncan off her NATO task and sent her that way. So that’s the sequence of events.

Q83 Mr Francois: You had the authority, as Defence Secretary, to redeploy that ship without having to refer to other Government Departments for a consensus?

Penny Mordaunt: I think the difficulty in this situation –

Mr Francois: I think you made the right decision; I’m just –

Penny Mordaunt: The difficulty was that I felt that I needed to have confidence that I had others’ permission to move a ship into that area. These are not trivial considerations. Moving more ships into that region is something that needed to be considered in terms of, “Is this the right look for the outcomes that we want to see?” I am of the same school of thought as Lord West. It is not often that you hear that, but I felt that we should be moving assets. However, I thought that needed to be a collective decision. It was clearly a cause for concern for some.

Q84 Mr Francois: I am sorry, I may have missed this, but how was that collective decision taken?

Penny Mordaunt: We have had the confidence to do that stemming from that ministerial Cobra. I think there had been a reluctance for us to move assets, but we were able to thrash it out at that meeting.

Q85 Mr Francois: Remind us of the date that that took place?

Penny Mordaunt: That was 10 July.

Q86 Mr Francois: So, the day before. Thank you.

Lastly – then I will hand back – I want to follow on from something the Chairman was saying when he read from the Secretary of State’s letter of 5 September and he read out part of the operative paragraph. The following sentence was, “However, I am keen to ensure Defence works with the Committee and have therefore tasked MoD officials with organising a briefing on this subject, noting that many of the issues it involves sit outside my Department’s responsibility.”

Now, Penny, you are no longer responsible for organising that briefing, but, if you will forgive me, in my experience, having been on this Committee for over a year now, I have never yet been to a briefing to this Committee by the MoD that told us anything at all that we could not have read in Jane’s or in The Daily Telegraph. In the United States, our counterparts in the HASC are briefed in a Faraday cage to an extremely high level of classification. The Ministry of Defence here treats us like school children and never tells us anything that we could not find out any other way. If you were us, would you bother to continue turning up to such briefings?

Penny Mordaunt: I would. I am not responsible for organising this. So much of this – to give yourselves the best situational awareness – is about intelligence and a bigger picture than what is in the public domain.

Mr Francois: Forgive me, but that is my point: they never tell us any of that; they say it is classified.

Q87 Dr Lewis: The suspicion we have, Penny, is that this is an embarrassing episode. There was a failure. It was very clear that the Iranians would do what they always do, which is retaliate in this way, and that – possibly for not very sound political reasons – you were not given the support that you needed in order to ensure that we were properly prepared to protect the shipping in question. That may have rather more to do with the reluctance of the Ministry of Defence to assist the Committee, even though, in the end, they will have to do so.

Penny Mordaunt: At times, I have not shied away from beating up the MoD. I would say two things in relation to that. I think there are two issues here. I am being very frank about where I think errors have been made. I was – and I am – very cross at the lack of opportunity for Ministers to thrash out issues, which I think would have given officials more options, would have gripped the situation, as I would have liked. I would say, though, that in the case of the Stena Impero – I probably don’t have all the information, but I do have some information and timelines on what happened with her – I don’t think there are many things that would have made a difference, because of what happened with her in particular. The provision that was made – admittedly I would love more ships; I have said that from day one in this place – by the Royal Navy, working with the United States, as we can only do in that region, was good. The work that the MTO was doing, with the Department for Transport –

Q88 Dr Lewis: MTO?

Penny Mordaunt: Maritime Trade Operations – the Royal Navy-staffed air traffic control, if I can describe it that way, stationed out there. The work they were doing protected enormous numbers of ships; it was good. I think some particular issues went wrong in the case of the Stena, but they were successfully protecting enormous numbers of ships. They were doing a good job and would have carried on doing a good job and are carrying on doing a good job. It is just that some things went wrong in the Stena’s case.

Q89 Dr Lewis: One of which was that the shipping company did not co-operate as it should have done by giving 24 hours’ notice of its planned movements. Is that right?

Penny Mordaunt: I think there were two things. Again, I am getting my information from the Permanent Joint Headquarters and from a direct conversation I had with the commander of maritime component literally after the event; I was in Bali at the time and I phoned him. First, she did give information, but the information that both the master and Stena’s chief security officer gave was not what they then did. They gave different transit times. That is the information I have. I think there was a particular issue with what she was doing. I think the ship followed all the other advice and requests made of her in the security notice that the Department for Transport issued. However, the times were different. I think she gave three hours’ notice, but the timings were wrong, so she set off earlier than she said she was going to.

Q90 Dr Lewis: According to what the Foreign Secretary said in his statement, I think they were supposed to have given more like 24 hours’ notice.

Penny Mordaunt: It was 24 hours, yes. There was a particular issue there. We cannot speculate in that case, but for every other vessel, the Royal Navy protected them, so I do not actually think that the Navy or the MoD dropped the ball on this. I think they did a pretty good job with what they had.

Dr Lewis: Really, one reason for wanting to hold this session was precisely because we suspected that there were factors like this – for example, the shipping company having been the author, to a considerable extent, of their own misfortune – not that that justifies in any way what Iran did. That is why we felt that we should hold a session like this and that it would not do any harm to the present ongoing situation.

Mr Francois: One last one. Penny, as I said, we on this Committee do not always feel that the Department takes us seriously. That is why, sometimes, when their witnesses come before us, they get a really hard time. The last time the Permanent Under-Secretary appeared before us, Private Eye did a kind of skit of the hearing, and in their words he was stretchered off the pitch.

This is not aimed at you personally in any way, but I hope that, as it were, others are listening: if the Ministry of Defence treat the Committee with greater respect, they might find that some of their witnesses get a slightly easier time. However, while they continue to do what they do, we will probably do what we do. I just hope somebody over in main building is listening and takes some notice. Time will tell.

Q91 Dr Lewis: And what is more, we did not even have to have a Cobra meeting to determine that deterrent threat.

Moving on, if we may, I take from what you said before that you concur with the overall conclusion of our two previous expert witnesses that the number of vessels in the surface fleet is inadequate. Given that that is the case, and as long as that remains the case, we have to co-operate with others. Can you tell us briefly, because we need to draw to a close, what was the nature of the request that the United States made on 24 and 30 of June for us to be involved with them in the Gulf in protecting shipping, and – remember this is what came up in the previous session; we flagged it up that we would ask this – did the US offer their assets to help protect British vessels before the capture of Stena Impero on 19 July?

Penny Mordaunt: Yes. This is a key question. First, I absolutely agree that this incident shows the importance of our having a strong Royal Navy, not just with more hulls, but with fast ships and frigates that are capable, can defend themselves, can be put in harm’s way and can keep up with tankers. That is absolutely right. With regard to the United States, we could not do anything without the United States, so during, prior, many years in advance, we have been working with the United States using assets, and also the intelligence, the command and control networks that are needed to mount any kind of effort. We have been doing that, so it was not the case that US help was turned down. It always has been the case that we have used that. So that’s one issue.

Q92 Dr Lewis: I just want to be clear. I understand that they may have ways that may be a bit sensitive about ongoing co-operation, but they asked us to join their sort of taskforce, and presumably, for largely political reasons, we decided not to do that. Did they offer to help us protect our ships?

Penny Mordaunt: No. Just to clarify, in terms of what was covering when these incidents were taking place, we were working with the United States. Indeed, I think some of the footage that you saw during the course of that time was taken from their assets, so the notion that we were not doing that is false. Where this line has crept in is where we were talking about future operations, where we were going to considerably beef up the presence and how we were working with other nations. On the foundation for that, there was only one nation that could have been in overall command of any operation that was stood up, and that was the United States because they are the only people that have the ability to be a platform for that kind of operation, for reasons that you are probably very aware of. So there were a number of potential options for what might happen in the future, and, again, would have taken a number of months to build up. One of them was a US construct. The decisions that had to be taken on whether to join that or not – whether to go with that or with a different kind of model being proposed by other nations – was a decision for the future. It was not about the period in which this happened.

Q93 Dr Lewis: I just want to nail this down and then I will pass over to Martin, who will explore the EU option in some detail. I want to get this clear. I understand you are talking about future long-term arrangements and whether it would be focused more with the US or more with the EU, but I think I am right in saying that in the 22 July statement by the Foreign Secretary, he referred to this. He said that:

“because freedom of navigation is a vital interest of every nation, we will now seek to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to support safe passage of both crew and cargo in this vital region. We have had constructive discussions with a number of countries in the last 48 hours and will discuss later this week the best way to complement this with recent US proposals in this area.”

Again, the question arises. That is being presented to Parliament by the Foreign Secretary, so Parliament thinks:

“This is one of our firm, solid reactions to this terrible seizure that has happened”,

but in reality, they seem to have gone for a model that you are saying would not have been very effective unless there had been continuing United States co-operation. Is that right?

Penny Mordaunt: As well as the American option, there were discussions around the UK and France leading two task groups within that. I think also it is worth mentioning that many other nations were involved in the discussions: the Gulf, India and other members of the Five Eyes community, so it was not just the EU and the US.

Q94 Dr Lewis: Okay, but was there no specific offer of short-term US help to deal with the immediate crisis, rather than this question about what should be the longer-term structure in the Gulf for security?

Penny Mordaunt: I cannot stress this enough, but this was an ongoing, existing –

Q95 Dr Lewis: Conversation?

Penny Mordaunt: Operation, if you like. It has been going on for a long time, because this is not new activity. Prior to this, there have been other threats from Iran in the region. Clearly, the situation politically was escalating, but the situation in terms of protecting shipping had been going on for some time.

Q96 Dr Lewis: I understand that. In the light of the seizure of the Stena Impero, did the United States specifically offer some direct assistance to help us protect British ships, over and above this long-term structural conversation?

Penny Mordaunt: In terms of escalating and increasing what we are doing under a US construct, that was first raised – clearly it had been under discussion between officials and the military – at the NSC on 18 June, and potentially prior. This is something that we had been talking about for some time. It was not a discussion saying, “We are now going to do this.” It was a discussion around, “Can we pursue this line? Can we start building up our options?”

Q97 Dr Lewis: You haven’t told me whether there was a specific US offer to assist and protect British ships in light of the fact that the ship had been seized.

Penny Mordaunt: No. Nothing over and above what was being done. I had many conversations with my officials. The US has helped us in this. Every offer of assistance throughout any period of time, we have taken –

Dr Lewis: We did not turn down a specific –

Penny Mordaunt: We did not turn down help from the United States. We were in discussions about what else we could do to make this more sustainable in the future. In the immediate term – by that, I mean six months – there was no option other than a US-led task group.

[ … ]

Q107 Martin Docherty-Hughes: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Penny Mordaunt: There are a couple of things. First, I hope that my evidence has demonstrated that the Royal Navy and the MoD – I will just state this to the Committee: if the Royal Navy had any concerns that were not being passed up to me or over the road, it would have found a way to pass those to me – have been very forward-leaning, they have thought about things in huge detail and they were very well prepared.

They came up with a range of things that we could have done. They were politically savvy; they understood the political sensitivities of this situation and, therefore, were coming up with constructs where we could allow the EU to take a much more forward role, while ensuring that we could operationally operate with the US. They did a really good job and the Royal Navy did a really good job protecting those ships. There is no one more frustrated that they did not get to the Stena in time than Dean Bassett and the Navy out there. I hope that has set the record straight with regards to that.

I have raised my concerns about ministerial oversight. I will take the opportunity to say again that this is why we need to have not just more hulls, but hulls that are highly capable, are fast ships and can look after themselves.

Q108 Dr Lewis: Could the Iranians do the same thing again now?

Penny Mordaunt: The Iranians have been doing this for a long time.

Q109 Dr Lewis: Do we have enough assets now in the Gulf to ward that off?

Penny Mordaunt: We are continuing to increase the amount of assets out there. Again, I have not been in the Department for a while, but I have no reason to doubt that they are continuing that trajectory. What I would say is that you want enough assets out there that when things go wrong, as they did with the Stena, and that error was made, you can cover that, ideally. If we sent the whole fleet there, it would not be enough, but we can only do this by working with partners and really ensuring that merchant shipping is co-operating with us.

The final thing that I would also add is about rules of engagement, which is something that you might wish to cover in a private session with the MoD. There are obviously very clear rules about what you can and cannot do in international waters and territorial waters, if you are approached by a vessel in those circumstances. I would suggest that – given the history of Iran and what it has been doing with shipping in this region – if they approach you in international waters, and want to see whether you are compliant with environmental standards or want you to identify yourself and prove that you are who you are claiming to be, you are allowed to take a slightly more defensive position than current rules of engagement allow. I think that is an area that needs to be explored and pushed.

Dr Lewis: Ex-Secretary of State, we would like to thank you very much indeed for being so willing to come forward at a difficult time in Parliament’s current procedures and for being so frank with the Committee. We hope that you feel that it has been time well spent, as well.

Penny Mordaunt: Thank you.

Dr Lewis: Thank you. The session is concluded.