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Libyan Personnel: Bassingbourn Barracks

Volume 599: debated on Thursday 10 September 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Sarah Newton.)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing the House the opportunity to consider the extraordinary and unhappy events that occurred in the city of Cambridge as a consequence of the decision to train Libyan personnel at Bassingbourn barracks last year. Bassingbourn barracks is located some 10.5 miles to the south-west of Cambridge—the city I now represent—but the background to the events in question takes us back some years to events in Libya and announcements by the Prime Minister in 2013.

The decision to train up to 2,000 Libyan armed forces personnel at Bassingbourn was announced in a statement by the then Secretary of State for Defence on 11 June 2014. It indicated that in the first tranche, some 325 Libyan recruits were starting training and that the programme would continue for 24 weeks. He assured the House:

“These recruits have been carefully vetted by the Libyan Government and Home Office officials”.

—[Official Report, 11 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 51WS.]

Cambridge is normally a safe city—as everywhere else, there are some incidents—but in late October 2014, the local newspaper started reporting a series of assaults that were highly unusual. The Cambridge News reported a Cambridgeshire police spokesman saying:

“We are investigating allegations of a serious sexual assault on Christ’s Pieces which is believed to have occurred between 2am and 5am this morning.”

The report continued:

“The force is hunting a group of three men, described as being of Middle Eastern appearance with dark black hair, in relation to the attack on the man in his 20s yesterday. Two men, both in their early 20s, are also being sought for the sexual attack on a woman on Mill Road. Cambridge residents are being warned to be vigilant and take safety precautions as well as sticking to groups at night.”

We now know that assaults took place on the weekend of 17 October, and more serious assaults occurred on 25 and 26 October.

What was going on? The police do not normally advise Cambridge residents on

“sticking to groups at night.”

What was going on was that these recruits, described by the Secretary of State as “carefully vetted”, were out of control on the streets of Cambridge. The local councillor for Bassingbourn tells me that he was assured, in respect of the recruits, that

“you will never see them and no-one will notice that they are there”,

and that the training was so intensive that they would not be let out of the barracks. That was clearly not the case —so out of control were they that, as we learned later when the cases were tried in May this year, two Libyan cadets were jailed for 12 years each for raping a man in Cambridge in a prolonged attack in Christ’s Pieces.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. We urgently needed to examine what happened in Cambridge and the trauma experienced by many families in the city. Does he agree that the Ministry of Defence should have been much more alert to the risk, given that sexual assaults, personnel breaking out of camps, the setting up of roadblocks and harassment of local communities had all happened where training had been offered to Libyans in Turkey, Libya and Jordan, and that the security vetting of these people was impossible?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I was not aware that that experience should have been brought to bear; that will add to some of the points that I am about to detail. The point I am making is about just how serious the offences were. We found out more after the rape trial verdicts were returned, because it was revealed that three other Libyans cadets had already pleaded guilty to unrelated sex attacks which had taken place in Cambridge on the same night. They had been sentenced at Norwich Crown court on 13 May, but reporting restrictions had been in place until the rape case was concluded. What was happening was very serious, and today I want to find out how that was allowed to happen, why it has taken so long to get answers, and why the people of Cambridge, and, in particular, the victims of the assaults, have not had an apology from those who gave quite clear assurances in the first place that risks would be minimal.

Let me first pay tribute to those who have been seeking answers, particularly Councillor Lewis Herbert, the leader of Cambridge City Council. The horrible, avoidable attacks took place in his city, but the council had been given not a single piece of information at any stage by the Ministry of Defence or the Army about Libyan troop visits to Cambridge. He has doggedly refused to accept the frankly evasive and frequently obstructive responses from the MOD. I also pay tribute to his fellow councillors, from a range of authorities across Cambridgeshire, and council officers who have pressed for answers for months and months. They are, however, still being denied the full facts, so much so that Councillor Herbert’s most recent letter to the Secretary of State, in late May this year, concludes:

“An acknowledgement of regret and an apology to the victims is, in our view, still outstanding from the Ministry of Defence”.

I hope that that, at least, will be forthcoming from the Minister today. I would also like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), the shadow Minister, for her tireless pursuit of the truth on these matters through questions and interventions. I am sure she, too, would like the full story to be revealed.

I shall move to the substance of what I hope the Minister will be able to tell us, but I will start by reminding the House of some of the key statements already made. On 4 November, soon after the weekends I have described, the Secretary of State made a brief statement saying only that the training programme was being curtailed and that the recruits will

“be returning to Libya in the coming days.”—[Official Report, 4 November 2014; Vol. 587, c. 44WS.]

There was no explanation and certainly no reassurance to the people of Cambridge. The following day the Prime Minister announced that he had requested a report into what had happened. It took until 9 January of this year for a further statement telling us that a copy of the report’s conclusions and recommendations only had been placed in the House of Commons Library. We still have not seen the full report; nor have we had the opportunity to see whether it really faces up to the issues or not.

Those producing the report had met local councillors and council officers, who presented a series of detailed questions and interrogated the terms of reference of the review that they had been given. Cambridge City Council also told the review team that it believed only an independent inquiry would restore public confidence. Later, in December, in response to Freedom of Information requests from the BBC, the original risk assessment was released, and it was confirmed that complaints about Libyan trainees leaving the camp and seeking out alcohol in pubs in local villages were reported as early as 8 August. Indeed, local Councillor Nigel Cathcart tells me:

“There were a number of incidents where Libyan trainees were observed, unsupervised, in the village of Bassingbourn. They were not causing any particular harm but residents were concerned to see them as it was understood that they should have been confined to the Barracks. As far as I am aware these incidents were reported at the time so the MOD should have been aware of what was happening. It was only later (probably 2 or 3 weeks) that the far more serious incidents took place in Cambridge. Had the MOD acted promptly on the original information and suspended the unsupervised incursions immediately then the Cambridge incidents could have been prevented. This was, therefore, a preventable event if the MOD had acted promptly with the information available to them.”

The councillor’s views are backed up by the risk assessment. The July 2013 assessment states that, subject to any subsequent review, the trainees were not to leave the camp off-duty unless—this is critical—they were in organised supervised groups. It states that

“the risk of bad behaviour of trainees outside Bassingbourn Camp is mitigated by the provisions of their visas, the supervisory measures in place for limited excursions and the security arrangements between the MOD, Police and Home Office.”

A second risk assessment reports that the initial plan to train 360 trainees for 14 weeks had been extended to 24 weeks, with tranches of 360 to 500. It is stated that by lengthening the course,

“to better meet Libyan intent and be more coherent with US plans”,

it would be necessary to allow supervised excursions, as rewards. These would require

“the appropriate measures in place to mitigate immigration and security risks”.

Detailed measures to reduce risks would include

“small, controlled batches of trainees”,

pre-advising of local police, and

“a robust communications plan in place for local communities and the media”.

There is also a detailed risk assessment for organised recreational visits. It says that

“under no circumstances will trainees be allowed to leave the group on an outward visit, and alcohol will be banned.”

Of course, as the local councillor has explained, none of that bears any resemblance to what actually happened.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the visits—which were apparently intended to encourage good behaviour among the Libyans, who were becoming increasingly out of control—included visits to the House of Commons, No. 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace?

We are grateful for the knowledge, as a consequence of some of the questions that have been tabled, that that series of visits took place. My point is that, even if those visits—extraordinary as some of them might seem—were supervised, the key question is what happened in the case of the unsupervised visits.

What actually happened was described by councillors, including the one whom I quoted earlier, when they met representatives of the MOD and the Army in February. In the minutes of that meeting, we had, for the first time, an apology from the Army, but none from the Ministry of Defence; and we finally had a recognition from the Army that the consultation with key local stakeholders had been inadequate. However, as the Army representatives admitted, we also learned that there had been a significant change in what is known as the “walk-out” policy in August 2014. Councillors were told that the decision to allow trainees to leave the camp unsupervised had been made by Ministers. I ask the Minister to confirm that that was the case, and to tell me why the safety of Cambridge residents was put at risk at that point.

I have to say that I find the account of what was happening in late October after the first spate of incidents quite alarming. Councillors were told that following the incidents of October 17, measures taken to

“add additional deterrent to leaving the camp included the addition of a platoon of Gurkha, two companies from the UK standby Battalion and Military Working Dogs.”

The following weekend, however, Cambridge suffered the most serious assaults of all. I also find it concerning that, in a written parliamentary answer on January 15 to the hon. Member for Bridgend, the then defence Minister said that the trainees

“were…escorted to shops in the local area, and Cambridge City Centre.”

In the light of what we now know, that hardly does justice to what was actually happening.

Of course, there was also a significant financial cost. We have learned from parliamentary answers that the costs of the training programme and reactivating the facilities were some £17 million, of which only £2.48 million has so far been recouped from the Libyan Government.

Let me end with a series of very clear questions to the Minister. Will the full report be made available? Who exactly authorised the end to the supervised walk-out policy in August 2014? Why was so little revealed about what actually happened, for so long, and why has it had to be dragged out by freedom of information requests and parliamentary questions? Will the Minister hold a genuinely independent inquiry, as requested by the local councils? What will be the financial cost of this entire exercise to the taxpayer? Finally, will there now be a full and unequivocal apology to the people of Cambridge and Cambridgeshire who were put at such risk, particularly the residents who, it may be argued, were as much victims of Ministry of Defence negligence as the Libyan trainees?

I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for initiating the debate. I appreciate the concerns of his constituents about the tragic events he has described.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, at the 2013 G8 summit the UK pledged, along with international partners, to train up to 7,000 Libyan troops. Of those, the UK offered to train up to 2,000 Libyan armed forces personnel. They were to return to Libya as a general purpose force to support the democratically elected Libyan Government; to disarm and integrate militias; and to improve the security and stability of the country. That was part of the wider ongoing political, economic, justice, and security support package with which the UK was providing the country at the time. The first phase of the training began in June 2014 at Bassingbourn barracks in Cambridgeshire, when 3 SCOTS delivered training to 328 Libyans.

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I would like to record my thanks to 3 SCOTS. It did tremendous work in the training it provided, and these appalling events should not mar its efforts. There is a direct connection between the work it has been doing and making our country safe and secure. Security in Libya and a political settlement there will help the security of our nation tremendously, and 3 SCOTS did a huge amount of work to support the mission.

The majority of Libyan trainees remained in the programme until the end, and were trained successfully despite the ongoing political uncertainty in Libya from August 2014 onwards. At the point when the training was eventually concluded, the battalion had exceeded its training objectives. The battalion could have been reinserted into a meaningful role in Libya if one had existed. Let me also add our gratitude to the hon. Gentleman’s local community, the Cambridgeshire constabulary and other Government Departments for their enormous support throughout that period.

The hon. Gentleman raised several points and I shall take them in turn, and the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) rightly identified the issue of training in-country as opposed to training here; that is clearly our preference and I will touch on that as well.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the publication of the report. Key findings were published in January and I will touch on the reasons the full report was not published then, but the full report now has been published, although it does have some redactions, which I will talk him through. He also raised concerns about one of the key findings of the report, which was the poor communications, to say the very least, with some elements of the local community, and I will talk about that and the lessons we have learned. He rightly talked about an apology and redress as well, which I will touch on, too. He mentioned vetting security and the process, too, and I will start with that.

Every potential recruit who successfully passed the Libyan vetting and selection process was subject to additional UK vetting in Libya to ensure that they met the minimum UK security, immigration, medical, physical, literacy and numeracy criteria. Home Office visa processes included checks against UK criminal databases and a visa declaration by all trainees confirming they had no criminal convictions or charges in the UK or elsewhere. In addition, to ensure a balanced mix of trainees, the selection process was designed so that no single group or region was over-represented in the training cohort. We were not aware that any of the candidates who passed UK screening had criminal convictions or faced charges at that time in the UK or elsewhere. If we had known of any, those candidates clearly would not have been in that cohort.

However, as the House is aware, there were some serious disciplinary issues. Libyan officers proved unable or unwilling to apply the sanctions that were available to them to deal effectively with the disciplinary and behavioural issues that arose. In order for the disciplinary issues not to affect the training any further, the Defence Secretary authorised the introduction of a package of incentives for good behaviour, including a system of training bonuses, and a change to the walking-out policy, as it was known, effectively allowing Libyan recruits unescorted time in Cambridge. That led to a period of relative calm within the camp.

It was not until 17 October that further incidents caused concern, when there were allegations of sexual assaults on members of the public in Cambridge. This led the chief constable of Cambridgeshire to request that the commanding officer of the training unit suspend local visits outside the camp, including visits to Cambridge. He did that, and also put in place heightened security at the barracks.

Bassingbourn is not a prison; it is designed to keep unwanted persons out of the camp, rather than to stop people leaving. It is also important to note that trainees could not legally be treated as prisoners. In the event, the extra security did not prevent substantial unauthorised groups of trainees from leaving the camp on 25 and 26 October, during which time two Libyans left the camp unauthorised and went on to commit a serious sexual assault in Cambridge. This led to another major increase in police and Army resources to secure the base, and the police and the Army concluded that the training had to be ended.

The dysfunctional position in Libya and the continuing absence of a defined role for the Libyan purpose force that we were training meant there was nothing to be gained in military terms from the training planned for the final four weeks of the course. Continuation of the course and further live firing training might have placed the trainers at unacceptable risk, and concerns were also being expressed about the strain that the training was placing on the unit itself. Taken together, those circumstances led to the Secretary of State for Defence ending the course. All Libyan trainees not in UK custody or claiming asylum were returned to Libya by mid-November.

I shall turn now to the report. Following the premature completion of the training, an independent report into the circumstances was produced. Its key findings were released in January of this year, and we accepted its recommendations in full. The Secretary of State made a statement to that effect in the House, but, as hon. Members will know, the full report was not released owing to ongoing criminal proceedings against the five Libyans accused of sexual offences. Those proceedings were concluded in May.

Having consulted the police and the Libyan embassy, and across Government, we have placed a copy of the report in the Library of the House of Commons. Those reading it will notice that, in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act, the technical arrangement between the UK and the Government of Libya has been redacted. This is unfortunately unavoidable. This is a bilateral document and, due to the fragility of the political situation in Libya, we are still awaiting agreement from the Libyan Government to publish that information. All names below senior civil servant level have also been redacted in line with the Freedom of Information Act.

The Defence Secretary has already gone on record confirming that no future general purpose force training will take place at Bassingbourn. The report underlines one area in particular where we could have done considerably better, which the hon. Gentleman raised: communication with the local community and in particular the way in which we communicated changes in the walking-out policy. Home Office Ministers were aware of the situation and the police were fully consulted on this change and provided advice during the decision-making process but, unfortunately, the local MP, local councils and the communities that were most affected were not told that there would be periods when trainees would not be escorted.

The heightened security at Bassingbourn and the suspension of all visits to Cambridge did not, in the event, prevent the most serious offences from being committed, but a more active approach to communicating with the local community was clearly needed. Since then, the Army has met local councils to discuss how the processes for communicating policy that affects local communities might be improved. Communication procedures have now been reviewed and measures are in place to ensure better communication, should a similar event ever arise.

The report also raises the issue of disciplining foreign troops. It is clear that the breakdown in the political situation in Libya played a large role in the problems we encountered, but the report concluded that the UK trainers had few tools at their disposal to discipline the Libyan trainees. The report asked whether we could apply UK service discipline to troops training in the UK. This would involve bringing foreign troops into the British military chain of command and require significant amendments to the Armed Forces Act 2006. My Department has assessed the challenges and downsides of making those changes and decided that they would currently outweigh any benefits, particularly as we are keen to provide training in-country. I have therefore not instructed my Department to instigate such changes now, but I will keep the matter under review. The report also recommends, however, that, in future, on courses of this kind, we consider delivering that training to the officers involved separately and in advance of the remaining trainees and carrying out basic training for the rest of the recruits in their own country. That will provide an additional layer of vetting, filtering out those for whom a career in the military may not be suitable, and securing a higher level of commitment from trainees.

Finally, I wish to turn to the issue of apology and redress. The Ministry of Defence has already expressed its deep regret about these appalling incidents. I add my personal voice to that to say how sorry I am that this has happened. These were heinous crimes committed against entirely innocent and random passers-by. Everyone who has been close to this case has been appalled by it and deeply regrets it.

I wish to place it on the record that these crimes were not committed by our armed forces. I am very conscious of that. The perpetrators clearly did not follow the high standards that we expect from our own military or from other military personnel, so as well as the tremendous hurt and harm they have done to members of the public in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, they have also done a grave disservice to anyone who wears a uniform.

I hear what the Minister says, and she has been very open and honest in her response, but we are still left with the MOD’s own risk assessment before the personnel came to the UK. It says:

“There were reports of widespread sexual and gender-based violence during the conflict and there is some evidence that serious human rights abuses involving sexual violence took place. A UN mission in 2012 found incidents of rape perpetrated against both women and men. This is likely to represent significant under-reporting, due to the sensitivity of sexual violence and reticence to discuss these issues outside the family.”

We knew that there was a problem, and yet still those personnel were brought to this country. The UK personnel who were asked to provide the discipline were not given the tools to do so.

I thank the hon. Lady for her point, because it gets to one of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. Clearly, there were risks associated with the cultural norms in Libyan society. Obviously, they were clearly identified in the risk assessment. Having read the report in preparation for this debate, I can say that there were things put in place to mitigate them, so a cultural education took place as part of the preparation for that course. Those providing the training took that extremely seriously.

I have already touched on the consultations that took place when policy was being changed to cope with what was a pretty unique set of circumstances, as these trainees were watching what was happening in their own country. A clear process was gone through. Clearly, there were issues around communication, and we regret what has happened. I just wish to state that there was no lax attitude in trying to mitigate the risks that any training course carries. Furthermore, decisions that were taken on changes of policy were clearly designed to improve the situation and not worsen it. We need to look at the conclusions of the report, which I have already done. Clearly, this has been an appalling episode that we never want to happen again. I know of the interest that the hon. Lady takes with regard to incidents of violence and sexual violence. She can be reassured by the cultural training that took place before the course started.

Finally, let me talk about redress. The hon. Gentleman very kindly spoke to one of my colleagues about some of the issues that he has raised, and he has also touched on the cost to the MOD, which clearly we would like to recoup for the British taxpayer and our own budget. In that conversation, although not on the Floor of the House, he alluded to losses that his local authority has incurred. Clearly that should not be allowed to stand, and if he has concerns about that I encourage him—if he has not done so already—to write to me or to my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, and we stand ready to provide him with advice. We are seeking financial redress, and perhaps others who are out of pocket should also do that. If he has such concerns, I will do all I can to assist him and his local authority, and I thank him again for allowing me to get that point on the record.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.