Hoon faces censure over body armour for UK troops

Defence Secretary dismissed Army fears. Government 'delayed procurement of vital kit'

The row over fatal shortages of equipment for British troops intensified last night as it emerged that the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, is to be censured in a Commons report and that key procurements were delayed because of their political sensitivity.

Mr Hoon is due to meet Samantha Roberts, the widow of Sergeant Steve Roberts, tomorrow as controversy escalates over his death three days after he was ordered to return his body armour.

The Defence Secretary is to be given what one MP predicted would be "a kicking" when the Commons Defence Committee issues its report on the war in early March.

Mr Hoon dismissed reports of logistical difficulties when he gave evidence to the committee last year. "There may have been the odd soldier who did not like his ready-to-eat meal," he told MPs.

He was later contradicted by some of Britain's most senior military officials. Lt-Gen John Reith, Chief of Joint Operations, Permanent Joint Headquarters, admitted that the shortage of body armour led to gunners and drivers of armoured vehicles in the frontline being stripped of their flak jackets.

The committee's report, Lessons of Iraq, is to be unsparing in its criticism of Mr Hoon. "It is going to give him a kicking. He tried to tell us the system worked very well, when his own officials and people on the ground contradicted that," one MP said.

Meanwhile senior military sources have told The Independent on Sunday that some shortages were the direct result of delays caused by political prevarication. They blamed Tony Blair for not giving the green light for the procurement of military equipment because it would have alarmed his own backbenchers ahead of a crucial Commons vote on the war in November.

In particular, efforts to obtain supplies of a material needed to protect troops against nuclear, chemical and biological (NBC) warfare were frustrated because Downing Street failed to give the go-ahead to the Ministry of Defence to place the order, according to one official.

A proposal to buy activated carbon, which absorbs harmful substances, in the summer of 2002 was blocked because of fears of a political storm.

Approval was given only after UN Resolution 1441, which paved the way to war, was passed that November. British troops also complained about the shortage of adequate NBC suits.

Nicholas Soames, the shadow Defence Secretary, said: "The Government were doing all they could to prevent their own party getting a hint that it was planning for a war. Orders were not placed on time and that caused huge difficulties."

The Chiefs of Staff rejected a proposal to appoint a senior officer to oversee distribution of kit to the front line, according to one senior government figure.

Mr Hoon has admitted that he could be forced to resign as a result of the Hutton inquiry and the row over equipment shortages.

"I am content to await the result of various investigations and obviously to make decisions in the light of whatever is said," he said.

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