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Baha Mousa Inquiry

Volume 532: debated on Thursday 8 September 2011

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the report into the death of Mr Baha Mousa in Iraq in 2003. In any conflict, no matter what the reason for our country’s involvement and no matter how difficult the circumstances, what separates us from our adversaries are the values with which we prosecute it and the ethics that guide our actions. To represent Britain, in war as well as in peace, is to represent our inherent democratic values, the rule of law and respect for life. When those values are transgressed, it is vital that we get to the bottom of what has happened, are open about the issues and their causes, ensure that what reparations we can make are made and do all that we can to prevent it from happening again. Only in that way can we ensure that those values hold firm in how we think of ourselves and in how others perceive us.

I am today laying before the House the independent report published this morning by Sir William Gage as chairman of the public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr Baha Mousa in Iraq in 2003. I am grateful to Sir William and his team, who have produced a report that is sober, focused and detailed. Above all, I believe it to be both fair and balanced. It is, however, a painful and difficult read. As the report sets out:

“Baha Mousa was subject to violent and cowardly abuse and assaults by British Servicemen whose job it was to guard him and treat him humanely”.

That was the primary cause of his death. The inquiry was rightly set up in 2008 by the previous Government with the intent of shining a spotlight on the events surrounding the death of Baha Mousa and to provide the most definitive account possible in the circumstances. It does that comprehensively. What happened to Baha Mousa and his fellow detainees in September 2003 was deplorable, shocking and shameful. The Ministry of Defence and the Army have previously made a full apology to the family of Baha Mousa and to his fellow detainees and have paid compensation to them.

We can take some limited comfort that incidents like this are extremely rare, but we cannot be satisfied by that. Given the seriousness of this case, there is a series of questions that I have asked myself and that other Members will ask too. Among these are: who was responsible and what happened to them as a consequence? What action has been taken to prevent a recurrence? Do we have the right protection in place today in Afghanistan? And, of course, how will the Government respond to the recommendations made in the report? On responsibility, the report makes clear the extent of the failings of individuals, the MOD and the armed forces at the time and in earlier years. In addition to the shocking displays of brutality for which individuals were responsible, it is also clear that there were serious failings in command and discipline in 1st Battalion the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment. There was a lack of clarity in the allocation of responsibility for the prisoner-handling process, and sadly, too, there was a lack of moral courage to report abuse. However, it must be acknowledged that a small number behaved with both integrity and courage in reporting what they had witnessed. They are examples of how others should have behaved.

Wider than the battalion, there were also deficiencies in policies, orders and training relating to detention at that time. The chairman noted that there was inadequate doctrine on prisoner handling and a “systemic failure” that allowed knowledge of the prohibition on abusive techniques put in place by the Heath Government to be lost over the years. The report also confirms that the Army was underprepared for the task of handling civilian detainees, having expected after the end of war-fighting to provide humanitarian aid rather than become involved in counter-insurgency activities.

Since this incident in 2003, six different Defence Secretaries have stood at this Dispatch Box. I am sure that they all regret that it has taken so long to get to the bottom of what happened and that even now the refusal of some involved to tell the whole truth means that it has not been possible to establish the full extent of the culpability of individuals. Their behaviour is a matter for their own consciences, but others must take responsibility for the wider failures and deficiencies, and this report does not mean that our investigations of mistreatment of detainees are over. The evidence from the inquiry will now be reviewed to see whether more can be done to bring those responsible to justice. It would therefore not be appropriate to comment in the House on specific individuals and their role in this appalling episode.

I have asked the Chief of the General Staff, where individuals are still serving, to consider what action is necessary to ensure that the Army’s ethical standards are upheld. That is occurring through the chain of command as we speak. The investigations of the Iraq historic allegations team, which started work last November, are now well under way and are revealing evidence of some concern. It is too early to comment on what the conclusions of the IHAT investigations might be, but cases will be referred to the Director of Service Prosecutions, if and when there is sufficient evidence to justify that.

Since 2003, action taken by the MOD and the Army to address failings as they were identified has touched every aspect of the prisoner-handling system, from policy and doctrine to ground-level directives, as well as training and oversight. The changes wrought have been fundamental. The Army Inspector’s report in 2010, validated by an independent expert adviser, is one example of the detailed scrutiny applied to the training and doctrine for handling detainees. I assure the House that there is a commitment to continuous improvement at all levels inside and outside the armed forces.

As the report acknowledges, further positive changes have been made as a result of matters that emerged from evidence heard during this inquiry’s final module—module 4—which was a thorough scrutiny of our current detention policies, practices and training. The Minister for the Armed Forces and I take a close personal interest in detention matters in Afghanistan, and I am confident that our approach to detention there has improved markedly since the period rightly criticised in this report. However, we are in no way complacent about the issues identified by Sir William, and I can inform the House that I am accepting in principle all his recommendations with one reservation. It is vital that we retain the techniques necessary to secure swiftly, in appropriate circumstances, the intelligence that can save lives. I am afraid that I cannot accept the recommendation that we institute a blanket ban, during tactical questioning, on the use of certain verbal and non-physical techniques. I share some of Sir William’s concerns, however, so I have asked the Chief of the Defence Staff to ensure that that approach is used only by defined people in defined circumstances.

Between 2003 and 2008, 179 British personnel were killed in Iraq serving their country, and many more returned injured. In autumn 2003, 1st Battalion the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment faced an immensely difficult challenge as it attempted to bring law and order to a large area that had been subject to a brutally oppressive regime for many years. As Sir William acknowledges, the issues addressed in his report

“need to be understood in the operational context in which they occurred: the tempo of operations; the poor state of the local civilian infrastructure; a daily threat to life from both civilian unrest and an increasing insurgency; the deaths of fellow service personnel and incessant oppressive heat. In combination these factors made huge demands on soldiers serving in Iraq in 2003.”

There are few of us sitting in the comfort of the House of Commons who can claim to understand what that must have been like. However, the vast majority of armed forces personnel faced these same challenges and did not behave in the way outlined in this report. They represent the fine ethical values found day in and day out in our armed forces, and we must not allow the unspeakable actions of a very few to damage the reputation of the whole.

I want to make it clear that Baha Mousa was not a casualty of war. His death occurred while he was a detainee in British custody. It was avoidable and preventable, and there can be no excuses. There is no place in our armed forces for the mistreatment of detainees, and there is no place for a perverted sense of loyalty that turns a blind eye to wrongdoing or erects a wall of silence to cover it up. If any serviceman or woman, no matter the colour of uniform that they wear, is found to have betrayed the values this country stands for and the standards that we hold dear, they will be held to account. Ultimately, whatever the circumstances, rules or regulations, people know the difference between right and wrong. We will not allow the behaviour of individuals who cross that line to taint the reputation of the armed forces, of which the British people are rightly proud. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for a strong statement. The whole House will welcome the way in which he is personally dealing with this difficult matter. I also welcome his courtesy in this morning allowing me early sight of the 1,400-page report into this horrific incident. It is a shocking episode, from which we must learn serious and lasting lessons. We all feel profound regret at the loss of Mr Baha Mousa’s life in British Army custody. His death in itself is tragic; that it appears that there was a cover-up afterwards compounds that tragedy. It is essential that our armed forces take responsibility for all actions committed during conflict. Our strength relies not only on our firepower, but on the standards and ethics that we uphold and on which we pride ourselves. This incident is a brutal violation of those standards.

Like the Secretary of State, I want to make it clear that although the report is damning about the actions of some in the Army in 2003, it is not a reflection of our armed forces in general. It is important that those in our forces hear that we remain proud of their bravery and professionalism, whether they are the 100,000 soldiers who previously served in Iraq in the recent past or those in Afghanistan or Libya operations today. All too many among their number have lost their lives or been injured to have their reputations attacked in that way. In Afghanistan, it is essential not only that our forces know that we are proud of their behaviour, but that Afghan civilians hear it loudly, too.

I would like to put on record my thanks to Sir William Gage and his inquiry team for their report, which is both forensic and frightening. It now seems clear that perhaps as many as two dozen members of the Army, including some in the chain of command, knew about the 93 injuries inflicted during those 36 hellish hours. The Secretary of State has outlined the details of the events, but it is deeply worrying that it now seems clear that there was a failure in the Army’s justice system, including in the court martial and the chain of command, and that incomplete assurances were given to Ministers.

It is right that politicians should avoid interfering in the criminal justice system in general and in military justice processes specifically, but that is sustainable only where the processes work and are demonstrated to be working. The report finds that multiple assaults took place in a confined space, including by senior NCOs, and that there was a

“loss of discipline and lack of moral courage”

to report the abuse. In accepting today’s recommendations, it is crucial that the Government take forward the proposal that those service personnel who reported abuse or who make complaints against their peers about the mistreatment of captured personnel should be afforded protection.

The report raises some serious questions; I wish to address just three, one of which the Secretary of State has already anticipated. He has stated that he accepts all but one of the 73 recommendations. He intends to retain the right to exercise the harsh approach in tactical questioning. There will be concerns in the House and elsewhere about that, so can he share further with the House the details as to why he wishes to retain the ability to enforce the harsh approach?

Secondly, the Secretary of State mentioned this in passing, but back in 1972, Ted Heath banned the use of the five techniques used in Northern Ireland during internment. Those techniques returned, despite being prohibited, albeit not banned, in the way that Prime Minister Heath had anticipated. The report suggests that legislation is not needed to ban those five techniques. However, will the Secretary of State look further at whether there will be an early opportunity to change armed forces legislation through the Armed Forces Bill, which is currently in their lordships’ House, to implement any parts of the report that would require legislative change? I am sure that he agrees that if legislative change were needed, it would be wrong to wait five years for the next armed forces Bill.

Finally, although the Secretary of State is right that we should not name individuals on the Floor of the House today, the report finds that individuals did not give full and accurate evidence about what happened and that there was a refusal to reveal identities. Previously, soldiers were given exemption from prosecution during this process. However, in addition to fresh Army disciplinary procedures that are currently being undertaken, will fresh legal processes now be initiated in the light of today’s report? Those named in the report surely cannot hide from justice behind their silence or their evasion in the court martial process, or be protected by a calculated cover-up by their peers in the Army or a failure to act in the Army’s chain of command.

In conclusion, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it is compulsory that UK forces should continue to behave in a way that is alien to our foes. When our forces have to detain someone, that detainee is both in our custody and in our care. There is strong support on this side of the House for the report and the recommendations, and for the Government’s reaction to it. However, the consequence of the report must be that never again should anyone be subject to such brutality and lose their life because they are in British custody.

I am very grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for his response and for the way in which he phrased it. He is quite right that the report in no way reflects on the general behaviour of our armed forces; indeed, the whole reason why we are discussing this case is that it was a shocking deviation from the normal standards of behaviour that we have seen from our armed forces. He is correct that a number of individuals are still serving. We are looking at the evidence in detail—it is obviously a very large report—and as I have said, the chain of command is looking at how those individuals still in the armed forces might be treated, although I expect a number of suspensions today.

The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues about the harsh approach to questioning and why we should adopt it. First, I should say to the House that the so-called harsh approach involves a short burst of shouting—defined as a short, sharp shock—to bring a captured person back to the realisation of their situation. It is not a violent technique, but it has produced information that has led to both civilian and military lives being saved. To deprive our armed forces of techniques that can make them safer and protect the population both here and abroad would be wrong.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we needed a change to the law in respect of the five techniques that were outlawed by the Heath Government back in 1972. My understanding is that we do not—they are absolutely banned, as is currently made clear in training—but I will look to see whether doing that would reinforce the position and whether our legal experts believe it to be necessary.

As for the right hon. Gentleman’s point about exemptions from prosecution based on evidence, let me be clear that there was an exemption from prosecution based on an individual’s own evidence, not an exemption from prosecution based on the evidence of others that came out in the inquiry. Both military and civilian prosecuting authorities will be looking closely at the evidence to see whether it is possible to bring more of those involved to justice.

I thank the Secretary of State for the content of his statement and for the tone in which he delivered it. I agree completely with what he said, including his reticence about the banning of non-physical harsh methodology. This incident was a dreadful stain on our very fine armed forces, and I welcome his comments about the continued efforts to pursue those who still evade responsibility for their appalling behaviour.

There are two areas that I want to ask the Secretary of State about. As with the Aitken report, this incident has again exposed the problems with corporate memory, which has come up in other areas, such as the loss of the Hercules and the coroner’s inquiry into that. What ongoing work, as I know that some work has been done, is the right hon. Gentleman doing to try to improve—no organisation can be perfect—this issue of corporate memory in the Ministry of Defence? What are he and his Ministers doing to continue to show an interest in detention facilities? No matter what rules and regulations are in force, if the top of the chain of command and Ministers themselves are not constantly vigilant in overseeing from the top the methods being used, the facilities provided and how they are being run, there will be lapses. Are the right hon. Gentleman and his Ministers continuing to be vigilant in respect of our facilities and how they are being used in Afghanistan and elsewhere?

The answer to the final question is emphatically yes. The Minister for the Armed Forces and I have recently inspected detention facilities in Afghanistan. We also have a rigorous system of reporting in place where every allegation is reported, recorded and investigated, which is a huge difference from what happened back in 2003. If I may say so, the Ministry of Defence strategic detention policy that the right hon. Gentleman published when he was Secretary of State is one of the ways in which we are codifying policy to ensure that corporate memory is not lost. The procedures for improvements in training, the very clear delineation of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and the writing down of these training materials are the means by which, I hope, these dreadful and almost unbelievable lapses in corporate memory will not be allowed to happen again.

This is a dark day for the British Army. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that the criminals who were responsible for this should be brought before the courts so that we can secure the good name of Her Majesty’s forces, which are made up of good, honourable people—men and women—who have been let down by a few thugs and the cowardliness of those who have baulked justice?

If I may, I will disagree with my hon. Friend, as I do not believe that this is a dark day for the Army; it is a dark day for a small number of individuals who have damaged the Army’s reputation for high ethical conduct. The vast majority of the British Army behaves in a way in which the whole House could be utterly proud. My hon. Friend is right, however, that those involved need to be pursued, that justice needs to be done and that we need to see what evidence comes from the report. Where new evidence is brought to light, we need to try to break through this wall of silence—this misguided sense of loyalty—that prevents wrongdoing from being properly addressed.

It is fair to say that the whole House commends the Secretary of State and his ministerial team for their continued vigilance on this issue, but will he assure us that all the individuals who are either found to be guilty or refuse to co-operate will be stripped of their Army pensions?

As I have said, we are looking at what evidence is emerging from the report. I have asked the Chief of the General Staff to look at it and, through the chain of command, to take the appropriate measures. Of course, anything that is done will have to be done within the law of the land.

Both Front Benchers and Back Benchers who have spoken so far have all quite rightly concentrated on the ethical dimension of this terrible case, but is the Secretary of State satisfied that the significance of abuses of this sort to counter-insurgency campaigning and the way in which they play into the hands of our enemies is sufficiently stressed by the heads of the armed services to the people on the front line?

I am, and it is an essential part of counter-insurgency—and successful counter-insurgency—that we are seen to protect the population concerned. The improvements made to training, to facilities, to detainee handling and, indeed, to the current training of the Afghan forces on how to do the same will ensure that, although we can never remove the risk of such incidents happening, we can certainly minimise that risk.

I acknowledge the tenor of the Defence Secretary’s statement on this grave matter. Will he tell us more about what Sir William has said about the extent of the failings of the Ministry of Defence itself in relation to these matters? When he speaks about allowing the harsh approach to continue, as used by defined people in defined circumstances, who will define the people and the circumstances in future? Will the techniques involved in the short, sharp verbal treatment include any threat to detainees, their families or their communities?

The mechanisms and approaches are set out in the appropriate training manuals and are emphasised during the training process. It is a matter of great regret that there was, as the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) has said, a loss of institutional memory in the Ministry of Defence. I personally find it difficult to understand how a statement given by a Prime Minister on the Floor of this House outlawing five interrogation techniques could be “forgotten” by the body corporate. There was a lack of codification, which has, I think, been put right in recent years. I share the disbelief that such a corporate memory failure could be allowed to occur.

To follow up what my hon. and good Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has said, I would like to take it to a lower level: when people are frightened, scared out of their wits, very tired and have lost friends, they sometimes lose their moral compass. Is my right hon. Friend instructing battalion commanders and brigade commanders to ensure that when such situations are likely, officers brief their men on exactly how they should act? In circumstances that we have heard about, as they apply to the Baha Mousa case, will my right hon. Friend ensure that supervision by officers and non-commissioned officers is as close as it possibly can be in order to stop weak people, who might also be thugs, from acting appallingly?

In many professions, the whole point of professional training is to get individuals to behave under stressful circumstances in the same way as they would at any other time. That applies in the medical profession, and it applies to the Army. My hon. Friend is right to point to the duty of officers both to supervise and to guide those they lead. One of the most appalling failures set out in the Baha Mousa inquiry was the failure of those in command generally to supervise and guide those for whom they were responsible. My hon. Friend makes a very important point.

Following the question from the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to stress that the ethical dimension cannot be separated from the UK’s national interest? Holding our armed forces to a higher standard than many other regimes is, ultimately, necessary if we are to protect UK interests and spread the values that we hold dear across the world.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. What we do says who we are, and it is our behaviour, not our words, that defines how we are perceived and the ethical values that we represent.

There is clearly a balance to be struck in the use of tactical questioning. We need to protect the prisoner from abuse but we also need to protect our service personnel from allegations of abuse. Will the Secretary of State undertake to recommunicate the current guidelines and limits to all service personnel?

I will certainly examine whether there is a need to do that, and if there is, I will certainly do so. As I have said, compared with the period in 2003 that the report examines, we now have a system in which every allegation is reported, recorded and investigated, and detainees are asked at various stages whether they have any complaints about their treatment. The way in which we now conduct these operations could not be more different from the way that is set out in the inquiry. We have learned some very important lessons, but the tragedy is that victims such as Baha Mousa were part of that learning process.

George Orwell wrote:

“We sleep peaceably in our beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf.”

Does the Secretary of State agree that the armed forces are unique because, along with certain elements of the police, they are armed and authorised to use lethal force on behalf of the state? Does he also agree that it is for that reason that we must never allow the principles of integrity and moral courage to be eroded, regardless of the circumstances in which our soldiers find themselves, and that we must never allow our rightful admiration for our armed forces to lead us to turn a blind eye to abuses such as this?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. He is quite right. It is worth remembering that liberty is not the natural state of affairs; it has to be fought for in every place and by every generation, and that sometimes requires us to take on forces of fanaticism that require rough or violent ways of engaging with them. Our armed forces are indeed licensed to use lethal force in the protection of the state, but they also have to operate within the law, both domestic and international. They have to conform to the highest ethical standards, not only because they represent this country but because it is by operating according to those ethical standards that their use of lethal force gains the acceptance of the British public.

Although there can be no excuse for the horrors inflicted on Mr Mousa, will my right hon. Friend reiterate that the enemies of this country must not be allowed to portray the brutal actions of a few as an indictment of the 120,000 servicemen and women who gave heroic and exemplary service in Iraq, not least the two Tamworth soldiers, Private Leon Spicer and Private Phillip Hewett, who gave their lives in Iraq, and for Iraq, in 2005?

I agree; it is indeed testimony to the quality and ethical behaviour of our armed forces that we are examining the behaviour of only a very small number of the 120,000 who served. However, as my hon. Friend says, there are no excuses, and the behaviour of a small number can taint the reputation of the many. That is why there can be no hiding place for this kind of behaviour.

I welcome the statement and the report, but will the Secretary of State tell us why this has taken so long to achieve, given that the incident took place more than a decade ago?

The incident took place some eight years ago. In setting out this morning why the report took such a long time to produce—some three years—Sir William explained the complexities involved and the fact that the team had wanted to go into very great detail to ensure that as much information as possible was put into the public domain, that the full history of the detainee operations was set out, and that the context could be fully understood. He also said in his statement this morning that it would be for others to judge whether the time had been well spent. The report is very long and detailed, but it is actually very readable, and any Member who takes the time to look at it will come to the conclusion that Sir William’s time was extremely well spent.

I thank my right hon. Friend for putting forward his case so clearly. Will he tell me what the difference is between tactical questioning and interrogation? Also, how can we ensure that this kind of thuggish activity does not become a recruiting sergeant for those who oppose the operations that we are undertaking or endanger the lives of armed forces personnel?

I believe that such activity has been reduced to the lowest possible level by the measures that have been taken. The way in which we conduct operations in Afghanistan is very different from what occurred in Iraq, and that has been one of the major reasons for the success of the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan. My hon. Friend asked about the difference between tactical questioning and interrogation. Tactical questioning is defined as

“the obtaining of information of a tactical nature from captured persons…the value of which could deteriorate or be lost altogether if the questioning was delayed”.

That is obviously something that takes place close to the point of capture. Interrogation is defined as

“the systematic, longer-term questioning of a selected individual by a trained and qualified interrogator”.

That would normally take place in purpose-built facilities, as it does in Afghanistan at the present time.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement, and I pay tribute to the way in which he has responded to our questions. Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) on tactical questioning and interrogation, may I ask the Secretary of State what he meant by the term “harsh approach” that he used in his statement?

As I said in response to an earlier question, the harsh approach is a short, sharp shock. It is used to ensure that the shock of capture is maintained, and to give us information. As well as extracting intelligence that can be used immediately on the ground—for example, information on where enemy forces or improvised explosive devices are—it can also be used to identify those who will go on into a further interrogation process. I believe that it is a necessary part of our weaponry in dealing with the threats that our armed forces face. That is why, although I was sympathetic to some of the issues that Sir William raised on this subject, I was unable fully to accept that recommendation.

I hope that my right hon. Friend would agree that, no matter what shame has been brought on our armed forces as a result of this incident, it is in no way representative of the history and record of that fine regiment.

In no way does the incident reflect upon the very proud history of the regiment, but those who were involved need to ask themselves whether their behaviour contributed to its proud history. That includes those who were involved in violent behaviour and those who showed a lack of leadership. They are the ones who need to ask themselves questions, not those in the broader regiment.