DEFENCE – NBC PROTECTION IN IRAQ – 13 January 2004

Dr Julian Lewis: Coming back to the substance of the NAO [National Audit Office] report, may I draw the Secretary of State's attention to one simple statement? The report says:

“7 Armoured Brigade armoured vehicles did not have viable Nuclear Biological and Chemical defence filters fitted throughout the warfighting phase of the Operation."

What does he think would have happened if there had been a nuclear, biological or chemical attack on those vehicles during the war?

Geoff Hoon: I should not ask the hon. Gentleman questions, but he is usually fair-minded about these matters. Chemical, biological and nuclear protection is designed to protect not vehicles but people. I was concerned that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex was perhaps unconsciously misleading the House about whether individuals were properly protected. As the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis) thinks through the implications of what I am saying to the House and of the NAO report, he must ask himself the vital question of whether individuals were properly protected. The NAO report says that they were.]

Dr Lewis: With respect, the Secretary of State has not answered my question. If the people in the tanks had been subjected to a chemical or biological attack, the agents would have got into the tanks because of the absence of the correct filters and the individuals would have died. Similarly, there was a 40 percent shortage of detection kits. Unless people have detection kits, they do not know that attacks – especially biological attacks – are under way until some time after they have begun, so does he agree that individuals were gravely at risk?

Mr Hoon: The hon. Gentleman usually reads documents with a great deal more care than that with which he appears to have read the NAO report. I apologise for saying that because, as I said, he is generally a fair-minded man. He needs to look carefully at the report's conclusions. He cannot pick out one detail on vehicles without – [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman were to listen while I am speaking rather than making comments, he would find out that the report concluded that the protection given to the armed forces was good in that respect. The answer to his question is that men and women would not have died in such circumstances because they were protected. The report states that fact rather than his suggestion of something to the contrary.]

Mr James Gray: Surely, the Secretary of State is wriggling. Figure 6 in the NAO report says quite plainly that the vehicles were not fitted with those filters. He is right that it was theoretically possible for individual soldiers in the vehicles to use their personal NBC kit, but that is to ignore the fundamental point that vehicles should be fitted with filters so that the individuals inside do not need to wear their NBC kit in desert conditions. Will he not answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) more specifically? Why were operational filters not issued to the vehicles before Telic 1?]

Mr Hoon: As I have said, the NAO report, which Opposition Members want to debate, concludes that the overall level of protection in relation to NBC equipment was good – [Interruption.] That may not satisfy them, but if they want to debate a report, they need to debate it in its entirety. Its conclusions are clear, and I am disturbed by their inability to read all of the report. Simply picking out a sentence here and there is not satisfactory.

Mr Michael Portillo: I am worried that the Secretary of State may have put himself in a ridiculous position by arguing that those filters were not necessary. If they were necessary, they should have been fitted. If they were not, they should not have been ordered. What is the position?

Mr Hoon: I am not putting myself in that position at all. I accept entirely that it would have been better for those vehicles to be fitted with filters, but the decision about whether or not forces are ready for battle – the latter was the case in Iraq – is not made in the Ministry of Defence or Whitehall, as the right hon. Gentleman will know from his own experience. It is made by force commanders on the ground, who render the military advice about whether or not their troops are ready for battle. That advice was clearly given.

* * *

Dr Lewis: The Minister [Adam Ingram] says that the Opposition are not good at concerted campaigns. Why, then, have we had to put up speaker after speaker, while only one Government Back Bencher has spoken?