With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the report into the al-Sweady inquiry into allegations that British forces tortured and executed up to 20 Iraqi men on 14 and 15 May 2004, and mistreated nine others between 14 May and 23 September 2004.
I am today laying before the House the independent report published this morning by Sir Thayne Forbes, the chairman of the public inquiry into these incidents. I am grateful to Sir Thayne and his team for their painstaking work, and for producing a report that puts to rest once and for all these shocking and, as we now know, completely baseless allegations. As I know Sir Thayne will acknowledge, the Ministry of Defence has provided unstinting support for his inquiry. During 169 days of hearings, Sir Thayne heard evidence from 55 Iraqi witnesses, 222 current and former service personnel and four expert witnesses. He also considered the written statements of a further 328 witnesses. His findings are incontrovertible.
It was alleged that, following a planned and co-ordinated ambush of British troops by heavily armed Iraqi insurgents around the Danny Boy permanent vehicle checkpoint on the main road between Basra and al-Amarah, British service personnel captured up to 20 Iraqi men alive, took them back to Camp Abu Naji, and then tortured and killed them in cold blood. These are allegations of the most serious nature and they are untrue.
The allegations have changed several times over the years. This is how Mr Phil Shiner, of the firm Public Interest Lawyers, presented them at a press conference in 2008:
“What you have heard is evidence that these 5 survivors have witnessed, seemingly in three separate venues at close hand:
The execution of up to 15 men
Between 4 and 5 of these executions involving shots at close range and the remainder some sort of strangulation or throat cutting
Some of these executions preceded by torture or mutilations that are so horrific that our clients could not describe the prolonged screaming without breaking down.”
Today it has been confirmed that British soldiers did not carry out the atrocities falsely attributed to them. Sir Thayne deals unequivocally with the soldiers’ actions and the falsity of the allegations. I quote:
“this Inquiry has established beyond doubt that all the most serious allegations, made against the British soldiers involved in the Battle of Danny Boy and its aftermath and which have been hanging over those soldiers for the last 10 years, have been found to be wholly without foundation and entirely the product of deliberate lies, reckless speculation and ingrained hostility.”
He indeed contrasts the falsity of the Iraqi accounts with the truthfulness of the military witnesses:
“the vast majority of the allegations made against the British military, which this Inquiry was required to investigate (including, without exception, all the most serious allegations), were wholly and entirely without merit or justification. Very many of those baseless allegations were the product of deliberate and calculated lies on the part of those who made them and who then gave evidence to this Inquiry in order to support and perpetuate them.”
The counsel for the nine former detainees and the relatives of the deceased conceded only as late as March this year that the evidence pointed overwhelmingly to the fact that, as the Government maintained throughout the inquiry and preceding judicial review, all those whose bodies were handed over to the Iraqi authorities for burial on 15 May died on the battlefield. The delay in making this concession is both inexplicable and shameful. By 4 July last year, expert witnesses had already demonstrated unequivocally that the Iraqis had died as a result of wounds sustained in the fighting. Had the concession been made then, it would not have been necessary for so many soldiers to give evidence, Sir Thayne could have concluded his hearings more quickly, and there would have been a significantly smaller bill to the taxpayer.
I turn now to the issue of detention. Following the battle, the nine detainees were taken to Camp Abu Naji. Sir Thayne has rejected most of the allegations made in connection with their treatment at the camp, including a lack of adequate medical care, assaults, the withholding of drinking water in contravention of the Geneva conventions and the use of white noise. However, I accept Sir Thayne’s conclusion that some instances of ill treatment did occur: the detainees were not provided with adequate food, and such food as was given was not provided until they had been tactically questioned; they were prevented from sleeping until three to four hours after they arrived at the camp; their sight was restricted almost continuously; and the use of “harsh” tactical questioning techniques—since withdrawn—amounted to ill treatment. Importantly, Sir Thayne observes that as a result of changes made by the MOD over the past several years, such ill treatment should not occur in future.
Sir Thayne also concluded that the requirement for detainees to undress fully as part of their medical examination and concurrent search for prohibited items amounted to ill treatment, and he did criticise the attitude of the regimental medical officer towards the medical examination of the detainees on their arrival at Shaibah, but he also concluded that only one of the detainees, who suffered discomfort for longer than he might otherwise have done, suffered any adverse consequences as a result of deficiencies in the medical examination. I wish to express my regret to the House that these instances of ill treatment should have occurred.
Sir Thayne Forbes has made just nine recommendations, and he acknowledges the progress that the Ministry has made since 2004 to improve all aspects of the prisoner-handling system—from policy and doctrine to unit-level instructions and procedures as well as training and oversight—and to ensure it complies with domestic and international law. I accept all nine recommendations in principle. I have commissioned urgent work on their practical implications—in particular, we will need to ensure that they will not prevent the armed forces from carrying out vital tasks—and I will announce to the House my detailed conclusions as soon as I can.
The Iraqi detainees, their accomplices and their lawyers must bear the brunt of the criticism for the protracted nature and £31 million cost of this unnecessary public inquiry. The falsity of the overwhelming majority of their allegations, the extraordinarily late disclosure of a document showing the nine detainees to have been insurgents and the delay by their lawyers in withdrawing the allegations of torture and murder have prompted the Solicitors Regulation Authority to investigate possible breaches of professional standards. The authority is expected to complete its investigation into the two firms responsible, Public Interest Lawyers and Leigh Day and Co., early next year.
Had the Legal Services Commission been aware in 2008 of this document it would have refused legal aid for the judicial review that took place then. That would have spared the service personnel a further six years of uncertainty and anxiety. It would have spared the relatives of the deceased a further six years of false hope, and it would have saved the British taxpayer a very high bill.
Although procedural failures by the MOD led to the public inquiry being established, it is those who made these false allegations who bear the responsibility for saddling the taxpayer with what has turned out to be a £31 million bill. Although there is no provision in the Inquiries Act 2005 for recovering the costs of a public inquiry, my Ministry is exploring whether the claimants’ failure to disclose the militia document will allow us to recover some of the costs of the judicial review.
In conclusion, I regret that it was found necessary to hold a public inquiry to disprove these allegations. This is not another Baha Mousa or an Abu Ghraib. No one died in British custody and there was no deliberate ill treatment. The few instances of ill treatment that did occur were rather the result of failings in doctrine and training that have already been or are being corrected. This was a shameful attempt to use our legal system—our legal system—to attack and falsely impugn our armed forces. That it has failed reflects the diligence and skill with which Sir Thayne has uncovered the facts.
I quoted earlier the accusations made by Mr Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers in calling for this inquiry. At that time he said:
“Do not believe for one second that we make these allegations lightly or without the evidence available to substantiate every single word of what we say.”
It is now beyond doubt that those allegations were without foundation. I challenge Mr Shiner and the other lawyers involved, from both firms, to issue an unequivocal apology to the soldiers whose reputations they attempted to traduce and to the taxpayers who have had to pay the costs of exposing these lies.
I add only one final comment. Following the battle of Danny Boy, five soldiers were awarded the military cross and one the conspicuous gallantry cross for their conduct there and in other engagements in early 2004. Other acts of bravery emerge clearly in the accounts of the battle. This is who our servicemen and women are. The reputation of our armed forces has been hard won in the service of our nation. It will survive the baseless slurs of those who seek to undermine those on whom we all depend. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for providing a copy of the inquiry report this morning. I also join him in thanking Sir Thayne Forbes and his team for their diligent work and comprehensive and conclusive report.
As the Defence Secretary said, our armed forces are the best in the world. British servicemen and women carry out their duties with bravery and distinction, and we owe them all a debt of gratitude for their service to our country. They often face the most difficult and challenging conditions. The battle of Danny Boy in southern Iraq in 2004 was one such occasion when the battle was ferocious and our troops were in great danger.
As the Defence Secretary rightly pointed out, five soldiers were awarded the military cross and one the conspicuous gallantry cross. As well as their courage, British soldiers pride themselves on their conduct in battle and the high standards to which they are held and indeed hold themselves. Does he agree that they are and will remain accountable both to international law and to the Geneva convention?
Does the Defence Secretary also agree that this House and any UK Government are not afraid to be open and frank when those high standards are not met and our armed forces do not adhere to the conduct expected of the British military? There are many examples of that—most strikingly, the statement of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in 2010 after the publication of the report of the Saville inquiry into the events known as Bloody Sunday, and the response to the Baha Mousa inquiry. It should be a source of pride that we are a country where that can happen.
Does the Defence Secretary agree that, likewise, we will not tolerate calculated, malicious and baseless untruths against our servicemen and women? This report states in those very terms that the serious allegations that precipitated the inquiry were just that. There were no unlawful killings on the battlefield, no mutilation of bodies and no executions in custody. I want to establish that very clearly before I ask him some questions about the report’s findings.
In dismissing the serious allegations made against British troops, the report nevertheless draws attention to some areas where we should learn lessons. Opposition Members support the conclusions and recommendations of the report. Does the Defence Secretary agree that the implementation of its nine recommendations can be achieved with speed and efficiency? We will support him in achieving that.
The report says that the conduct of some individual soldiers did amount to actual or possible ill treatment. I of course join the Defence Secretary in expressing regret that that occurred. It is not acceptable. Have the soldiers been identified? Are they still in service and, if so, what steps are being taken to address those concerns? The report states that Ministry of Defence procedures in place at the time might have contributed to what happened. Can the Defence Secretary confirm that, if those procedures have not been updated already, they will be reviewed now?
The report identifies ways in which we might be able to avoid the need for such costly inquiries in future. I share with the Defence Secretary the concerns about the legal representatives and the legal process in this instance. In that sense, the recommendations in the report will ensure a better way of examining allegations against the armed forces, avoiding unnecessarily cumbersome processes and, as he pointed out, significant financial costs.
What progress has been made on the collection and storage of and ability to search documents and other records? Has the shooting incident policy been reviewed and updated? Are there plans to do so? What changes have been made to the recording of the circumstances of a prisoner’s detention? More generally, how does the Defence Secretary plan to review any shortcomings in existing practices and procedures, and ensure that they are updated and amended?
In its conclusion, the report compared, as did the Defence Secretary, the testimony of those alleging and those being accused. The report said that the Iraqi witnesses were
“unprincipled in the extreme and wholly without regard for the truth”
while the British military witnesses were, by contrast, “truthful and reliable”, despite the difficulty and distress caused by recalling traumatic events of battle. I think the House will join me in saying that that speaks for itself—and it speaks volumes.
I am grateful to the shadow Defence Secretary for what he has said and for the tone in which he said it. I agree with his comment about the baseless untruths. He started by saying that our armed forces must be accountable to the law, and it is important to emphasise that—that they are accountable under both domestic law and the law of armed conflict, and that where there are allegations they will always be investigated. We should be open and frank about that. Where instances of some ill treatment or harsh treatment occur, they should be fully and honestly investigated. I do think that there are very few countries and judicial systems that would put themselves through this kind of inquiry to get to the truth.
The hon. Gentleman asked me some specific questions. On the recommendations, I am studying the report in detail and I will respond, as is customary, within the next few weeks on the detail of the recommendations. I hope it is clear that I accept the spirit of them all and the principle behind them all. I just have to look at some of the practicalities of implementing at least one or two of them.
I do not have any up-to-date information about where the personnel are currently serving. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would allow me to write to him on that specific point.
On the procedural changes, these were the procedures that applied 10 years ago, in 2004. Sir Thayne himself acknowledges that many of the procedural changes have already been introduced. On the public inquiry, it might have been easy for the incoming Government—the inquiry was set up under the previous Government—simply to halt the public inquiry, but I believe that it was the right decision to allow it to run its course. However, we now have the Iraq historic allegations team, which will be able to get at the truth of these allegations probably in a different format and a little more quickly than a public inquiry, inevitably. That is not a criticism of Sir Thayne—far from it.
I join the Secretary of State in absolutely commending the report for reinforcing the honour and respect of the British soldiers. Having been based in Abu Naji and Maysan at the time, I encourage the Secretary of State to focus on the broader political context. It was completely tragic that not just a few Iraqis, but most of the Iraqi leadership in the province were convinced of these unimaginable atrocities. I encourage the Secretary of State to ensure that in future we have the right role for political officers on the ground to ensure that bodies are treated in the correct fashion, that the survivors’ families are reached out to in the correct fashion and that trust is built between the British military and the local political leaders to ensure that our soldiers are protected from these baseless allegations.
My hon. Friend makes the very important point that we need to reflect on the extent to which these lies and untruths were believed by the local community in the area. He makes the point all the more powerfully because of his personal experience and knowledge—not simply of Iraq, but of that particular province of Iraq. I will certainly reflect further on the point he makes about the role of political officers.
I commissioned this report only after the Department was very heavily criticised in the courts for having failed properly to investigate the allegations that were being made. I believed then, as I believe now, that the main reason for that failure was not a lack of will on our part, but a refusal to co-operate with an inquiry by the representatives of the Iraqis, public interest lawyers and Mr Phil Shiner. I have no way of knowing or proving what the motives were for that lack of co-operation, but I do know that public interest lawyers have a very lucrative business model.
We have to ensure that when serious allegations are made, they are properly investigated. That is the kind of nation we are and it is the way in which we manage to ensure that our armed forces maintain the very highest levels attainable. Equally, however, we have to protect the public purse from misuse. I urge the Secretary of State, his Government colleagues and the other parties in the House to think about how we can ensure that both those things happen. We need to continue to impose the rule of law in very difficult circumstances, but also to ensure that our systems are not being systematically abused.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for explaining the circumstances in which the public inquiry came into being. He has much closer knowledge of it than others, because he was responsible for setting it up. He is right: the price that we pay for the reputation of our armed forces is that when such allegations are made—wherever they come from—they must be investigated, and they are investigated immediately in the field by the Royal Military Police and their special investigators. It is right that that happens.
The right hon. Gentleman made an important point about costs, and the fact that certain unscrupulous lawyers appear to be benefiting directly, at public expense, from their ability to trigger inquiries such as this. We need to look into how that might be curtailed, and I welcome his suggestion that the matter might be pursued on a genuinely bipartisan basis.
Does my right hon. Friend agree—he appears to—that, while it is essential for a country with values such as ours to hold inquiries into the serious allegations against our armed forces or our intelligence services that are made from time to time, there is always the danger that a tiny minority of the legal profession will create something of an industry in pursuing them to the point of a long and difficult inquiry such as this? Will he ask our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to take the matter up with the leaders of the judiciary and the leaders of the profession, who I am sure will agree with him that there is a danger that needs to be tackled?
As I have already emphasised, when there are allegations they need to be investigated and when there are failings they need to be put right, but what has emerged very clearly from the report is that all those serious allegations had no foundation whatever. My right hon. and learned Friend has made the constructive suggestion that we should discuss not just with my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary but with the leaders of the profession how we can curtail some of the abuse and cost involved. His point is all the more powerful given that he is a member of that profession; it is good to hear such a suggestion from the profession itself.
I fully accept the report’s conclusions, and I am delighted on behalf of the individual members of the armed forces who were accused of these vile atrocities. They have been completely exonerated, which is good for them and good for the armed forces generally. However—this point was raised by the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker)—while I recognise that instances of ill treatment are few and far between and are relatively minor in comparison with the awful accusations that were levelled at the troops, I trust that they will be addressed by the Secretary of State.
Yes. As I said earlier, we have already made a series of changes in our procedures, and we will continue to do so. The report makes some important points about retrieval of information from the battlefield, archiving and the use of information systems to make it easier to get more quickly to the truth of what actually happened. Let me emphasise again, however, that when there are allegations they will be properly and fully investigated, and when there are failings we should own up to them and put the procedures right.
It is of course an absolute outrage that it has taken 10 stress-filled years to clear these young soldiers of the baseless slurs against them, but is there not a wider point to be made? Does the Secretary of State agree that allowing further claims and allegations of this kind—the baseless ones and even, perhaps, the slightly less baseless ones—to be pursued in the same way might interfere with the perfectly legitimate conduct of warfare, and that there is a real risk that legitimate warfare will be replaced with “lawfare”?
I am, of course, concerned that the operational efficiency of commanders in the field should not be inhibited by additional legal complications, such as fresh rulings by the European Court of Human Rights or attempts to extend a health and safety regime that would apply in civilian life to the battlefield. We must think carefully about the weight of law imposed on those whom we ask to do very dangerous things in our name and to react very quickly. This was a battlefield, and I think it important for the House to bear that in mind.
Obviously we should all support our armed forces, and I welcome what the Secretary of State said in his statement. We have very courageous, professional and decent armed forces who have to perform in some terrible and traumatic circumstances, and we have seen yet again that they are forces of whom we should all be proud. May I ask, however, whether the Secretary of State feels that improvements could be made in the chain of command to enable situations such as this to be dealt with properly in the first place, rather than developing to such an extent that an inquiry is necessary?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. He speaks with particular authority as a former defence Minister, and I will consider what he has said about the chain of command. As we heard from his right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), a number of interlocking issues were involved. There was the judicial review and the public inquiry, and so on. However, I think that we would all want to avoid putting members of our armed forces through this process, given the time and cost that were involved in exposing an allegation—the major allegation—that turned out to be completely untrue.
I welcome the statement, and the very clear outcome of an inquiry that was far more credible because it was judge-led. When he established the Gibson inquiry, the Prime Minister said:
“For public confidence, and for independence from Parliament, party and government, it is right to have a judge-led inquiry.”
Does the Secretary of State agree with that principle, and would he like it to be extended to other inquiries into allegations of British involvement in torture?
I think that my hon. Friend is tempting me to stray slightly from the subject of the statement. The inquiry clearly benefited from the professionalism and skill of Sir Thayne Forbes and his team, and I think we should leave it at that.
In all my time in the House, I have seldom been more shocked than I was by the statement today. I cannot even imagine how those service people have coped for 10 years with such a cloud hanging over them. What support are the Government giving them and their families?
The hon. Lady’s question gives me an opportunity to update an earlier answer. One of the soldiers named in the report is still serving, but I understand that the rest have left the armed forces.
The hon. Lady has made a good point about the support available to soldiers who must either serve or, if they have left the forces, bear the brunt of allegations of this kind. If I may, I will look into the matter further and write to her.
I, too, welcome the statement. It is important that we should inquire into serious allegations when they are made, and that we should have the sort of judge-led inquiry that we have had in this case.
I agree with what was said by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), and I share the sense of shock that I think the whole House feels about the people who made up such shocking lies about our armed forces. It is good that the forces have been cleared, but is there any indication of what the motivation was? Was it hostility to our country? [Hon. Members: “Money!”] Was it money? Does anything in the report explain this outrageous behaviour?
I am not sure that I should comment on the motives involved—I think that the report speaks for itself in that regard—but I believe that the House would be with me in questioning the motives of some of the advisers involved. I do not think that they have helped the reputation of the British legal system in any respect.
I welcome the statement. The untrue and false allegations affected the British Army and directly affected these soldiers and their families; for many, they led to both physical and emotional changes. What can be done even now, 10 years later, to undo the untold harm done to the British Army personnel and their families who have been affected?
As I have said, I will certainly look at what support was provided to the soldiers against whom the allegations were made and whether we can improve our procedures in that respect. They do now, as of today, have the knowledge that those allegations turned out to be completely untrue, but I think the House will agree that it should not have taken 10 years and all this money for the truth to emerge.
May I remind the House of just how difficult it is for a soldier in combat to change within milliseconds from a duty to kill the enemy to a duty to protect the enemy under the Geneva conventions? I am extremely proud that our soldiers from both the two infantry battalions concerned have acted so professionally on this occasion and I am very pleased by the outcome of this report. I thank the judge and I am very happy for the British Army.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who, of course, brings to this House very direct experience of the battlefield and the instant decisions that have to be taken on it. He has particular knowledge of the obligation on our soldiers—which they accept gladly—to do their very best, when the battle is over, for the wounded and for those detained.
I think the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) was asking the Secretary of State to agree with him, and the Secretary of State did agree with him. The hon. Gentleman is therefore now, I am sure, doubly happy.
I am, indeed, Mr Speaker.
We are grateful.
I speak as someone who served in Iraq in both 2003 and 2004. While any mistreatment of detainees is completely unacceptable —the Secretary of State has referred to procedural changes that have been made—is it not the case that the overwhelming majority of our servicemen and women have served with distinction and honour, and that, regardless of people’s different views on the conflict, as a country we owe them a debt of gratitude? I ask the Secretary of State to give an assurance that any British soldier who has been materially affected by their service in Iraq will, whatever the point in their life when they have been affected, be properly looked after by our country.
On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, he is right to draw the House’s attention to the fact that thousands of British troops served in Iraq. They did so with distinction and they did us proud, and only a very small handful had these allegations made against them. We should remember that.
On supporting our servicemen and ex-servicemen, I am delighted that the armed forces covenant is now enshrined in law; we must now make a reality of that covenant. The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), has written to all colleagues in the House drawing attention to the role we can play in making sure that the covenant is properly implemented by our local authorities, GPs, jobcentres and the others involved in looking after our armed forces. Just yesterday, I think, we published the annual report on the covenant and its operation.
My right hon. Friend is, of course, right that we must hold our servicemen to the highest possible standards. He will remember that by April 2004 the detention of people in that region was already a point of controversy, but by then—when the Defence Committee visited Shaibah in April 2004—it was clear that any deficiencies had been seriously gripped by the chain of command. When we hold ourselves to such high standards, it is particularly outrageous that the consequences of what perhaps happened to Baha Mousa and the trials that then followed have been thoroughly and unscrupulously abused by extension by the representatives of these people. My right hon. Friend has made absolutely clear what actions he expects the Solicitors Regulation Authority to take, and may I tell him that I absolutely agree with that?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The events investigated by Sir Thayne were from 10 years ago, just at the beginning of some of the hardest fighting in Helmand, and it is noteworthy that right from the beginning the procedures were being examined and were improved. They have certainly improved significantly over the 10 years.
On the solicitors involved, as I have told the House, there is now an investigation into both firms by the SRA, but I think that before we see the result of that investigation the very least the lawyers involved in this case can do is apologise to the soldiers—and, indeed, to the taxpayer.
Several hon. Members
Order. May I just point out to the House that questions thus far have been on the full side, very understandably as colleagues have wished to express their indignation about the matters concerned? I am keen to accommodate all remaining questioners, but I simply advise the House that there are two very heavily subscribed Opposition day debates to follow, before which, of course, there is a ten-minute rule motion, and I should be grateful if colleagues would tailor their contributions accordingly.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. He will be aware of allegations of wrongdoing in relation to Northern Ireland back in the 1970s, where men were tortured and detained without charge. What actions will the UK Government now take to redress the imbalance in relation to that, which has been identified as involving hooded men being subjected to the five techniques of torture?
I understand the significance of this issue in Northern Ireland. It is not, of course, the subject of this report, but I know it is part of the discussions into the past that are now being conducted. I hope that will soon be resolved, but the hon. Lady is, quite reasonably, tempting me into areas outside my particular field.
Will my right hon. Friend suggest to the Lord Chancellor that, when the SRA concludes its investigation, the Lord Chancellor comes to the House to make a statement, so that the SRA knows that the eyes of Parliament are going to be on its conduct of this investigation, and not least the question of how the firms of solicitors got their clients? There are suggestions that they were paying agents to go around Iraq to drum up business, often not knowing who their clients were. This seems to me to be yet another issue that needs to be properly investigated by the SRA.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend raising that, and I hope it will be.
As a former special envoy on human rights to Iraq, I am particularly pleased that we put ourselves in the dock, we answered the allegations, and we were not guilty of most of them. The reputation of the British Government and British forces is very high indeed in Iraq, and this incident has not detracted in any way from the strong feelings and admiration people in Iraq have for Britain and its forces. The MOD has made changes because there were some instances of ill-treatment. What precisely are these changes and how can the Secretary of State assure us that they will result in such ill-treatment not happening again?
I agree with the right hon. Lady about the reputation of our troops; I heard that for myself on my visits to Baghdad and Irbil. They did an impressively good job in Iraq.
I hope, Mr Speaker, you will also allow me to make a correction. I think I misspoke a moment ago: I referred to Helmand. I am afraid that was the pressure of making this statement. I of course meant to refer to the early years of fighting in Iraq.
Improvements have been made to the procedures, and there are important recommendations, particularly about the retrieval and archiving of information to make it easier to find out exactly what happened and for that information to be brought back to the United Kingdom, so that when these allegations are made, they can be quickly and properly investigated.
On behalf of all Members, I thank the Secretary of State for the outstanding tone and substance of the statement. I hope the Solicitors Regulation Authority will restore some standing to the profession of which I am a member, as we are all ashamed of the actions of certain members of it in the background. Will he discuss with the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary whether there has been an examination of those organisations, including some charities, to which the Government continue to give funds, and which use that money to instruct solicitors or to front actions against the Government or our armed forces?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his earlier comment, and I will certainly take forward his suggestion that that aspect should be investigated too.
Will the Secretary of State expand on the answer that he just gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis)? What assurances can he give to the public that not only will the recommendations result in the protection and humane treatment of detainees, but that our armed forces will get protection when they need to be able to operate effectively in very difficult circumstances where lives are at risk?
On the first point, Sir Thayne Forbes himself has accepted that some of the procedures involved have already been improved. Corrections have been made and the procedures are now operating far better than in the very early years 10 years ago, but the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There is a balance to be struck between the obligations that we ask our soldiers to accept when they are involved in very dangerous tasks, particularly on the battlefield. That is why I am concerned about the encroachment of other kinds of law on what is already a satisfactory basis of law—the law of armed conflict and our own domestic law.
Further to the excellent question from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), a truly dreadful abuse of the legal system has caused untold stress to our loyal troops. Is there an argument for a civil claim against the two lawyers? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the two law firms in question and the lawyers involved should have their practice certificates suspended, pending the SRA inquiry?
On the first question, I lack the legal expertise to comment on whether a civil claim would have a chance of success. On the practice certificates of the two firms, that is a matter for the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
I was interested to hear Sir Thayne Forbes say that the reason for gathering the bodies of the combatants was
“to see if there was amongst them an individual, known by the codename Bravo 1, who was suspected of having been involved in the murder of the six Royal Military Policemen in Majar Al Kabir in June 2003.”
The Defence Secretary will know that my constituent, Corporal Simon Miller, was among the Red Caps murdered in that massacre. Does he therefore agree with me that the attempt to identify Bravo 1 was justified? Can he tell us whether the suspect in question was indeed identified that day?
As I understand it—I am open to correction—all the detainees were revealed to have been insurgents. One of the things that the inquiry has thrown up is the distinction between general interrogation and what is called tactical questioning, where people need very quickly to get as much information as they can in order to save lives or to prevent further bloodshed on the battlefield. It is that distinction that Sir Thayne discusses when he comes to the various procedures. As I understand it, in terms of the very specific identification on that day, it did not take place.
We are the only country in the world that pays legal aid to sue our own Army. We then pay millions to defend our Army in those cases. Public Interest Lawyers has made over £1 million a year from such cases in each of the past four years. Is there a realistic opportunity for us to get some of that money back? Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that if there is, he will go after it as best he can?
We all regret the amount of time and the cost of this inquiry, but I am still proud to live in a country where these things can be fully investigated. It has taken far too long and cost far too much money, but I would rather the truth came out, however painful it has been. On the recovery of costs, as I said, we are looking at whether some of the costs involved in the earlier judicial review claim can now be recouped.
One question that has not yet been raised relates to the asymmetric nature of so much modern warfare. When our troops go into battle, more often than not it is not against another nation state that observes international law and the Geneva convention, but against irregulars who do not observe the rule of law. This must put our soldiers in the heat of battle under immense psychological pressure. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that the lessons from this report will be fed into the way our soldiers are trained, which has enabled them to maintain very high standards when fighting against people who do not maintain the same standards against them?
That is already part of the training that our servicemen and women now undergo, but the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The House should wonder whether the Taliban or ISIL would rush to provide bottled water before they were asked to do so if they had British detainees in their custody, or indeed if those detainees had survived to be in their custody.
The Secretary of State said that the cost of the public inquiry was £31 million, but that of course is not the total cost. Can he give us a figure for the total cost, including the costs before the public inquiry? Does this come out of the MOD’s budget or the Ministry of Justice’s budget? How many ships, planes and service personnel have we lost as a result of those firms taking this money?
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the figures for the earlier costs. The figure of £31 million is specifically for the public inquiry. As he said, that is a huge and unacceptable amount. It comes directly from the defence budget and he is right—it could otherwise have been spent on providing more equipment for our troops and on many other things that people might have regarded as having a higher priority.
The Secretary of State may recall that in 2004 a number of nationalist MPs gave £14,000 of taxpayers’ money to that law firm for an earlier case. Does he think there is merit in the MOD raising this with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to ensure that nationalist MPs never again squander taxpayers’ money on those ambulance-chasers?
I do not recall that, but perhaps I could look into it and get back to the hon. Gentleman on that specific point.
I welcome the clarity and the robustness of the statement. On dealing with the aftermath of a battlefield situation and the handling of prisoners, the Secretary of State has mentioned on a couple of occasions that one of the lessons learned relates to data and intelligence gathering from the battlefield. Are there further lessons to be put in place in training or procedures?
There are a number of recommendations which we want to study in detail. I have made it clear to the House that I accept the principle and the intent that lie behind them. We have to work through some of the practicalities—for example, video recording and how that would work in a situation very close to the battlefield. I will, of course, come back to the House with my detailed conclusions within a few weeks, I hope.
I commend the Secretary of State on an extremely well-judged statement, in which I believe he spoke not just on behalf of his Department, but on behalf of the whole House. What more can be done to get the clear message out—particularly to communities and individuals, among whom I would count myself, who vehemently opposed the Iraq war in 2003—that British troops in Iraq did not torture or murder,?
That is indeed an important point. I will consider not only how we might disseminate the findings of this report across the United Kingdom but, as the Chairman of the Select Committee said, what more we can do to reassure the Iraqi communities that British troops do not behave in the way that was alleged.