Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Freer.)
Given that there is extended time, I will perhaps—[Interruption.]
Order. Will Members leave quietly, please? We are still engaged in a debate.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Given that there is extended time, I will let Members rush out as quickly as possible because, as I am sure Government Front Benchers understand, these affairs are hugely important and deserve the proper attention and scrutiny of the House.
I should say at the outset that there is absolutely no joy in bringing this debate before the House this evening, but it is important. It follows, as the Minister knows, the joint investigation of The Sunday Times and “Panorama” of the role of special forces and UK personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. The investigation contained some of the most serious allegations, including allegations of war crimes that have been committed and subsequently covered up by members of the armed forces and perhaps even Ministers themselves.
I should lay out at the very beginning the high regard in which I and those on the Scottish National party Benches hold members of the armed forces. I can see two Defence Ministers on the Government Front Bench who already know that. The high regard in which we hold them is matched only by the high standards placed on them by the Government, on behalf of the British public, and rightly so. The Minister responding this evening knows that better than most.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way—I sought his permission to intervene. Does he agree that our British Army have served in the most difficult wars and conflicts and that their courage and bravery are never in doubt? Does he recognise that every soldier has been subjected to traumatic and stressful circumstances and that the MOD must ensure that every soldier receives the legal advice and help that they need?
The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct to make that point, and I thank him for making it early. The two theatres of conflict in the title of this debate this evening—Iraq and Afghanistan—are two of the toughest. Indeed, he is also right to mention that members of the armed forces perform their duties in some of the most extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
It is entirely right, however, as the hon. Gentleman and I discussed before the debate, that standards are upheld. I know that the Government Front-Bench team agrees with that. It is entirely right that this House expects the Government to live up to what the Geneva conventions require. As I said to the Secretary of State earlier, in a different but not entirely unrelated statement, there should be an unforgiving quest for truth and to uphold rules and laws, but I shall return to that later.
In truth, these affairs can get uncomfortable for officials, for Ministers and for serving personnel, but it is entirely right and entirely appropriate that we grapple with them in the most forensic fashion, not least because of the Government’s announcement in the Queen’s Speech and long-held plans, of which the Minister who is to respond has been a champion, to change the rules around what can be investigated for Members who have served in Northern Ireland.
The joint investigation by The Sunday Times and “Panorama” was an extraordinarily important piece of investigative journalism. I am quite sure that all the Ministers on the Front Bench have furnished themselves with the details of it from top to bottom, and I thank those journalists and investigators who took the time to take part in it. Investigative journalism is important, especially in such affairs, as a mechanism in a democratic society to arrest any temptation to sweep over these matters or any temptation of a corrupting view setting in.
The important thing about the allegations that have been uncovered—hundreds of documents and statements —is that they were not made by what the former Prime Minister called ambulance-chasing activist lawyers. Nobody wants to see vexatious claims being made, but these allegations were made by serving members of the armed forces. They were made by military intelligence officers and Government-appointed detectives.
Even with the extended time we have this evening, it would not be possible to get into the detail of every case that was uncovered in that journalism, but I want to adumbrate some of the things that it brought to our attention: degrading and inhumane treatment; the unlawful killing of civilians; faulty intelligence; doctored and amended statements when affairs have been investigated, including by the Royal Military Police; and evidence of torture at Camp Stephen in Basra. Anyone who read that journalism or watched the “Panorama” programme could not fail to have been shocked by what appears to be a ruthless and co-ordinated effort to close down the investigations. As I mentioned, it will not be possible to go into all the details of the investigations this evening, but I am sure the Minister will understand that I may wish to follow up on some of the specifics with him in writing.
I plead with the Government in their entirety, not least the Minister who responds this evening, to be judicious in their response and in the handling of these affairs and to approach them with the seriousness they deserve.
There is also the case of the shooting of three boys and one young man in Afghanistan—shot in the head. The premise was that they were Taliban insurgents, but the joint investigation has told us that no such evidence was ever produced. That information was passed to the Service Prosecuting Authority, and a recommendation of war crimes charges was made. A cover up by military officials then ensued. Serious, serious questions about why these allegations appear to have been whitewashed in that way need to be addressed.
In both Iraq and Afghanistan, false information was knowingly given to the victims’ families. Two civilians died in Iraq under the care of the Black Watch, and their families were told that they died days after they were arrested. The families were told that they were in hospital, which was never the case. There was less than a week between those two cases. What looks like a co-ordinated effort to evade justice simply will not hold.
I talked to some Conservative Members earlier, and I was reminded that this stuff has a habit of coming back to bite if it is not dealt with properly. It may be that it comes back in the most serious fashion imaginable. I support Lord Ken Macdonald’s calls for these affairs to be reopened and investigated properly via a public inquiry led by a judge, but it could be that it ends up with the International Criminal Court. It is hard to think of a more seriously grave situation in which the Government could find themselves.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful statement, and I am sure all Members will take note of what he says. Does he agree this serves to highlight that we need some parliamentary mechanism to delve into and investigate such accusations and claims?
It is almost as if the hon. Gentleman can see the notes in front of me, because I am coming to that exact point.
The allegations uncovered by the joint BBC and The Sunday Times investigation have to be taken out of the Government’s hands and given to an independent inquiry led by a judge. No honest person could disagree with that.
The hon. Gentleman touches on an important wider point, which is Parliament’s broader ability to hold special forces operations to account. That is woefully lacking in this country, and we are being outdone by the United States—the United States!—on the oversight of special forces. In this modern age, the public expect there to be proper parliamentary scrutiny and parliamentary oversight. The system needs updating.
Clearly there cannot be a free-for-all in which every single Member can access information on live special forces operations, as only a fool would suggest such a thing, but it cannot be beyond the House’s collective imagination, or beyond the collective imagination of the small group of Members, some of whom are unfortunately no longer with us, who regularly attend debates on defence, to propose a mechanism by which we can catch up with the United States—the US system is not perfect, but it is something—Denmark and Norway and have proper oversight of special forces operations.
Indeed, it has been mentioned before in the House by both the Labour Opposition and the Scottish National party, to great resistance from Conservative Members, that the time has come for us to introduce a proper war powers Act. I say to the Government that it is better to take this stuff on now and to have a serious parliamentary debate on the scrutiny efforts this Parliament can take forward before it ends up in the International Criminal Court—nobody wants to see that, but it may well be heading there. A failure to deal with this properly, to be judicious and sober in approaching these matters, and to ensure that justice is done and the pursuit of the truth is absolutely unforgiving is nothing short of an assault on our values. It is worth remembering that the ICC was set up with the United Kingdom’s enthusiastic support, and rightly so. As I said, I do not want to see this end up in the ICC and I am sure that neither does the Minister. He has an opportunity to ensure that it does not.
Against a backdrop of assaults on the international rules-based order, which the Government tell us day in, day out they want to defend and uphold, surely we must respond to this mind-blowing investigation properly.
I detect that the former Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence wishes to intervene.
Before the hon. Gentleman concludes, may I ask whether he feels that a mechanism similar to that of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which conducts investigations into matters relating to the intelligence agencies that cannot be discussed on the Floor of the House, might not be a slightly more appropriate response than the much wider aim of a war powers Act, with all that that would entail?
It sounds to me as though I have an ally in the former Chair of the Defence Committee, because I think that part of the remit of the judge-led inquiry that I have advocated on the Floor of the House tonight should be to make a recommendation to the House on what mechanism the House or the Government bring to the House so that these operations can be properly scrutinised. The ISC would be an obvious outfit for that, although I know that other Members would perhaps disagree.
It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman makes three separate points. One is about having a war powers Act. I was a co-signatory, with Mr Tony Benn, 20 years ago, in a call for a war powers Act. That is one issue about the role of the House in approving conventional wars over and above article 5 responses—defensive actions.
Secondly, there is a question about the oversight of special forces operations. I have doubts on that, because of the cramping effect on our ability to respond flexibly to serious, non-full-war operations.
It is important to differentiate the third point, which is about the allegations—they are just that at the moment—that have been put by reporters and repeated by the hon. Gentleman. The proper response to those is through criminal actions; we need not an inquiry by this House, but proper investigation and proper criminal prosecution, independently by the authorities. I say to him that all the soldiers I know—senior special forces soldiers, senior generals and operational officers in the field today—would welcome that, because no soldier wants to be fighting from the low moral ground. A British soldier wants to be fighting from the high moral ground, and in that at least we are in the same place.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman deeply for that intervention, as he is of course entirely correct. I would just come back to the second point he picked me up on, which was about oversight. Nobody wants to deny flexibility; clearly, there has to be an ability to respond. We discussed earlier how the US system is not perfect, but I do not think anyone can say that President Trump feels particularly inflexible as a result of the oversight mechanisms that exist on Capitol Hill. I am not suggesting we mirror those in their entirety, but the right hon. Gentleman is a great authority on these affairs and I think it is time—it is only my proposal at this stage—that if we have a judge-led inquiry that investigates these matters, part of its remit could be to make a recommendation to the Government and the House on the best means of moving forward for proper oversight that does not compromise flexibility and security, because nobody would want that.
It is one thing to have oversight, but what if it does not change the culture of acceptable behaviour that has brought about this investigation? One thing that the House does consistently is reject the idea that members of the armed forces are employees—that has been objected to by Government Members on the Front Bench. Among those of us on the SNP Benches at least, there is an acceptance that if we want to change culture, we need to treat members of the armed forces as employees and give them a trade union.
My hon. Friend tempts me down another path entirely, and he knows I agree with him on that, but his broader point is entirely spot on. I know he has spent a lot of time looking at these matters over the past two and a half years that he has been a member of the Defence Committee, so he speaks with some degree of knowledge of them.
I have sympathy with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying—and, indeed, with what the former Chairman of the Defence Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), said—but my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) made the point that this could be crippling, and one needs to balance it quite carefully. Let us not kid ourselves: our top soldiers do not go out wanting to commit war crimes. They go out in very confused, dynamic, frightening situations, operating with imperfect information, to take on people who would otherwise hurt our constituents. We need to keep that firmly in mind and not imagine that we have some great problem of crazy guys with unseasonal suntans running around killing people. That is clearly not the case.
The hon. Gentleman identifies an allegation that I have not made. That is important to remember, because I agree with what he just said. Of course members of the armed forces do not go out wishing to commit crimes and atrocities—of course they do not, and I do not allege that.
In response to what the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said, I should say that the allegations—and they are just allegations—do not come from reporters. They are exposed by reporters but they come from members of the armed forces. The problem with what has happened, especially in the Afghan case—the shooting of three children and one young man—is that video evidence is available of what that soldier went into, in an extremely tough situation, as the hon. Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) mentioned, but that video evidence has been concealed from top members of the armed forces. It has been concealed from people for whom security clearance exists. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has watched the BBC “Panorama” programme but I strongly suggest that he does so. It has around 90 days left on the iPlayer, so there is plenty of time to do so.
We are clearly not going to resolve this issue and get into all the details tonight, but tonight has to be the start of a proper, judicious and sober parliamentary discussion to ensure that those on the Government Front Bench act appropriately. As I was saying, the assaults on the international rules-based system, which can change depending on who uses the phrase, are coming at us from all angles, so let us be the ones who say, “No more.” Let the Government come forward and do the right thing. Let the Government come forward and say, “This will be uncomfortable, but it is entirely right that we are held to the standards that we are supposed to be held to under international law; that we do have high standards for serving members of the armed forces; and that we will not put up with any concerted effort to cover this up.” Let us shine a light on this stuff.
Where there is a problem politically is that clearly vexatious claims have been made. I do not want to see that any more than the Minister does; in fact, I want to see it dealt with, but I want to see it dealt with properly. It cannot be used as an excuse to shut down any discussion or to close off any avenue of investigation into the deep, deep seriousness of what has been uncovered by the joint investigation.
Of course we know that the majority of our armed forces who have served in these theatres have served with integrity and honour at all times, but we did not support them in their integrity and honourable behaviour by failing to investigate these allegations. In fact, we must investigate, and the investigation must include an investigation of the victims. Until we do that—unless we properly investigate them—we do not properly support and we do not properly stand up here in this House and say that we can defend completely and utterly the actions of our armed forces.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Ultimately, the rules and the laws exist to protect serving personnel, as well as to protect those who are in the theatre of conflict to which they are deployed. The rules and laws are there to uphold the very honour to which we pay tribute in this Parliament.
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will finish with this point.
As I mentioned earlier, the Government tell us that they always want to uphold the international rules-based system. I suspect that we have different views on what that can mean, but this is not it. Clearly, the Minister cannot make any promises to me this evening, but the Government must set up an independent inquiry into the allegations that have been made by fellow members of the armed forces, and I beseech him to do that. We need to know what took place, what the Royal Military Police were doing, why statements were amended and why faulty intelligence leads were followed, resulting in the deaths of civilians and their families being lied to. Their families deserve better, and our armed forces deserve so, so much better.
Although there is a broader political debate on oversight—and it sounds like I have some allies across the House in ensuring that that is on the agenda—I ask the Minister tonight, especially given the intentions of the Government in relation to Northern Ireland, to approach this matter appropriately, to come to the Dispatch Box and to make it clear that there will be an unforgiving and relentless pursuit of the truth and of justice. If he does that, I will back him all the way.
May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) on securing this debate? He covered a lot of ground, but I want to try to stay within the remit of tonight’s debate. He has some very interesting ideas, and in me he has someone with a very contemporary view of defence. I think that we need to modernise some of the things that we do, but much of that is for another day.
What is hugely important is that Parliament and the public should have confidence in how our armed forces conduct overseas operations and in how allegations of criminal behaviour are investigated. This issue is highly topical in the wake of the recent allegations made by The Sunday Times and the BBC, which I will address in my reply, and as this Prime Minister has asked me to address the long-standing unacceptability of how we deal with historical prosecutions against servicemen and women, often decades after service.
I want to be clear with the House and with the country from the outset. Many words have been written and said about what I have tried to do, both previously from the Back Benches and now on behalf of the UK Government, when it comes to historical allegations against our servicemen and women. They are almost always inaccurate and usually simply seek to answer one side of the debate, or satisfy one party in the argument.
Let me be absolutely crystal clear: Members will not find any individual in this House more committed to prosecuting those who break the law while in uniform than me. Many of my cohorts operated in harsh and chaotic circumstances over many years while remaining firmly within the boundaries of the law. Like all of us, I hold no truck whatever with those who were or who are unable to operate within the constraints placed on them as a professional member of the UK’s armed forces—armed forces that remain the envy of our peers. I am equally clear that there are few higher sins of Government than to expose those who volunteer to serve and ultimately to sacrifice themselves on this nation’s behalf and to subject them to years and years of interminable court processes, allegations and deep personal distress simply as a result of serving this nation on operations. Where there is clear evidence of crimes being committed, the Prime Minister and I are unequivocal that individuals must be held to account for their actions, irrespective of time passed. But we will not allow veterans in this country who have committed no crime to be exposed to endless legal processes well outside of the original intended scope of the laws under which they are brought—hounding some of the nation’s finest people years after service.
I hear what the Minister saying and I carry a lot of sympathy for it, but if he does not deal with this properly, quickly and appropriately, the problem will not be courts in the United Kingdom; the problem might well be in the International Criminal Court.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I have dealt with this issue for years now, including before I came here. The last individual who wants to see this country go to the ICC to deal with these allegations is me. However, I reiterate the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who is no longer in his place, which is that these are allegations at this stage. I will come to that in a moment.
A balance has to be struck and we will seek that in this Parliament, starting with primary legislation, which I will shortly be laying before Parliament. It is in this very careful space—which I encourage those who are deliberately ill informed, or who simply want to politicise and rewrite history, not to enter; and that clearly does not include the hon. Member for Glasgow South—that I will answer some of the points raised about the conduct of UK armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last almost 20 years. I just want to expand on that very briefly, given that we have a little bit of time. I cannot overestimate the pain caused to the families of the victims of these situations by ill-informed debates in this space around amnesties and other options that are simply not considered. The Government are very clear that there can be no time bar on prosecutions, and I urge everyone who takes part in this debate to do so cognisant of the victims and of the people who are being hounded in this process.
The House will be aware of the long-standing policy of successive Governments not to comment on the activities of our special forces. This “neither confirm, nor deny” policy is an essential element in enabling this strategic asset to operate effectively. I am therefore unable to speak in any detail about the vital role that our special forces played in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will have to confine myself to making observations about the allegations more generally.
On the basis of five specific incidents—two from Iraq and three from Afghanistan—The Sunday Times and the BBC make four broad allegations: first, that we operated death squads in Afghanistan; secondly, that there has been a systematic attempt by the MOD not to investigate allegations; thirdly, that the MOD has applied pressure to terminate investigations prematurely; and fourthly, that the MOD has sought throughout to ensure that war crimes in Iraq go unpunished. The BBC wrote to the Ministry of Defence prior to broadcast setting out these and other allegations that were not repeated in its “Panorama” programme. The MOD promptly forwarded these letters to the service police and the Service Prosecuting Authority. The service police have reviewed the letters and the programme, and have confirmed that The Sunday Times and the BBC have not produced any new allegations or any new evidence in relation to those five incidents that had not already been considered.
Let me repeat now from the Dispatch Box to the House and beyond that anyone who has any evidence—“evidence” is the key word—has a duty to come forward and let independent police officers examine that evidence. The allegations are deeply disturbing and, as perhaps the most prominent voice on increased legal protections for our armed forces, I wish personally to satisfy myself about them. These investigations are never closed. Any evidence will be looked at in an independent and professional manner, to this day. As the House would expect, the International Criminal Court is considering the BBC’s allegations as part of its preliminary examination into alleged war crimes in Iraq. The Government are continuing to co-operate fully with the ICC, and we expect to be able to satisfy it that the service police have appropriately investigated all allegations.
We know that the UN has identified cases of 300 civilians who have been unlawfully killed. If there are 300 civilians who have been unlawfully killed, there are people who have done the unlawful killing. I would therefore like to know what steps are being taken to properly investigate these killings to ensure that we have the answers and there is scrutiny as to the operations of the armed forces.
I am about to come on to civilian casualties. Every civilian casualty is reported to the military police. I will cover that in detail in a moment.
First, though, let me deal with the allegation that our armed forces operated so-called death squads in Afghanistan. This is simply not true. Our armed forces did conduct many daring operations to capture Taliban insurgents. However, these were not “kill or capture” operations; rather, they were carefully planned “capture” operations with the object of capturing known Taliban insurgents and their associates. While every effort is taken to minimise the risk to any civilians who are present during such operations, it is simply an unfortunate fact that the risk of civilian casualties in war cannot be eliminated altogether.
Irrespective of the unit involved in any operation, civilian deaths were reported to, and have been independently investigated by, the Royal Military Police. All three of the incidents cited by The Sunday Times and the BBC have been investigated. The RMP referred one case—the shooting of Fazel Mohammed and three Afghan minors, to which the hon. Gentleman referred—to the Service Prosecuting Authority, which, having obtained independent legal advice outside the Ministry of Defence from senior external counsel, decided that the evidence did not establish a realistic prospect of conviction. In the other two cases, the RMP concluded that there was insufficient evidence of wrongdoing and did not refer any soldiers for any offence.
It is simply not credible to suggest, given the scale of resources expended by the MOD on investigating alleged criminal behaviour in Iraq and Afghanistan, that this demonstrates that there could have been a systematic cover-up. Over £40 million has been spent to date on the Iraq criminal investigations, while £10 million has been spent on Operation Northmoor, which is the RMP’s investigation into 675 allegations from Afghanistan. At their height, the Iraq Historical Allegations Team and Operation Northmoor each involved over 100 investigators who have collated and reviewed vast numbers of documents and interviewed large numbers of alleged victims, families, witnesses, service personnel and veterans.
Throughout, the MOD has wanted investigations and prosecution decisions to be conducted efficiently and effectively. But the reality is that the nature of warfare has changed. So-called lawfare has become a tool for extending conflicts by other means or attempting to actually rewrite history itself.
If I may take the Minister back just slightly, the investigators he mentions who looked at many of these allegations are the same people who have now blown the whistle to the BBC and The Sunday Times. They are the same people who have come forward and said that things have been shut down. He rightly says that he will bring forward primary legislation in the near future. Does he envisage that by that time there will be greater or less resource to investigate as a result of his legislation?
Let me be very clear with the hon. Gentleman. There have been allegations made by individuals, a very small number of whom worked within the investigative teams. There have been allegations made by a small number of people associated with operational units involved in the incidents that have been alleged. They have made allegations, and investigators who have interviewed them have been persuaded by their case. Those allegations are then investigated and presented to the independent Service Prosecuting Authority, which makes a decision as to whether the threshold of evidence has been breached and a conviction, or even a prosecution, is likely. That decision has been made in a clear-eyed, professional manner without fear or favour, in order to bring this matter to a close. It is in nobody’s interests that this has continued as long as it has. In terms of resource and how we address this, I will come to that towards the end of my remarks, but Members can pick me up if I do not.
In the case of Iraq, the investigative challenges were compounded by the behaviour of some of the legal firms involved. Public Interest Lawyers waged a long-running campaign challenging the ability of the service police to conduct independent and effective investigations. Having lost that argument, PIL notified approximately 1,200 new allegations, many of which were found upon examination to be seriously misplaced or extremely flimsy.
I am clear that IHAT could have handled matters much better—I have not changed my view on that since I personally ran the campaign to expose its practices—but I want to make it absolutely clear that there has been no strategic interference whatsoever in individual cases or in the overall Iraq or Afghanistan case loads. That would be completely pointless. Allegations that are not fully investigated will only contrive to extend the process for our servicemen and women. All investigative and prosecution decisions have been made independently by the service police and the Service Prosecuting Authority without reference to the MOD, the chain of command or Ministers. They have also been subject to independent external and periodic independent reviews by subject matter experts.
The Iraq investigations have been subject to unprecedented court oversight, with extensive, transparent reporting obligations to a designated judge of the High Court. Operation Northmoor has been subject to independent assurance by an experienced senior criminal barrister and a retired chief constable. The allegation that IHAT and Op Northmoor investigations were closed down for political reasons in 2017 is, I am afraid, simply wrong and self-defeating. IHAT’s case load was transferred to Service Police Legacy Investigations, which stood up on 1 July 2017 and is still conducting a small number of investigations. Investigations under Operation Northmoor continued with independent external assurance into 2019.
The assertion that the Ministry of Defence exploited the taint that resulted from Phil Shiner’s misconduct to close investigations is also incorrect. The evidence that PIL had paid an undisclosed number of Iraqis, apparently by way of inducement, to bring allegations against our armed forces emerged only after IHAT and the Service Prosecuting Authority had started reviewing the Iraq case load to decide in accordance with the High Court’s direction whether further investigation was warranted in individual cases. IHAT and the SPA informed the High Court of their approach and the rationale for it. The High Court did not express any concern about this review process. None of the investigations under Op Northmoor was affected by Phil Shiner being struck off, as the BBC and The Sunday Times assert, because none of the investigations involved allegations notified by Phil Shiner.
The Sunday Times and the BBC assert that the closure of IHAT was intended to ensure that the alleged war crimes in Iraq went unpunished. I have outlined why that is simply not credible to the UK’s armed forces, as an institution that prides itself on its ethos and values that set it apart from this nation’s enemies. Factually, they cite two cases in support of this wholly untenable position: the shooting of an off-duty Iraqi policeman and the deaths of Radhi Nama and Abdul Jabar Mousa Ali at Camp Stephen. In fact, both cases were taken over by SPLI when IHAT closed. SPLI’s investigations into both cases only finished in early 2019. This means that the information that forms the basis of comments by former IHAT investigators and by Lord Macdonald, to whom the hon. Member for Glasgow South referred, was incomplete and at least two years out of date. While it has not been possible to attribute the deaths of Mr Nama and Mr Mousa Ali to any individuals, SPLI referred three people to the Service Prosecuting Authority for having committed or failed to prevent, punish or report outrages upon personal dignity. In coming to a decision in this case, the director of service prosecutions obtained independent legal advice from senior external counsel.
It is a matter of deep personal regret that the original RMP investigations were flawed, and that opportunities to hold those responsible to account may now have been lost. For this, I unreservedly apologise to those who suffered treatment at the hands of UK forces that was simply unacceptable, and I apologise to our servicemen and women who have, as a result, had years of investigations foisted upon them, having more often than not had nothing to do with the incidents in question.
As the al-Sweady inquiry has already highlighted, the RMP elements deployed to Iraq were simply insufficient to cope with the unexpectedly high number of incidents requiring investigation. This is what led the Provost Marshal (Army) in 2010 to direct IHAT to review nine RMP investigations, including those into the deaths of Mr Nama and Mr Mousa Ali, to ascertain whether all lines of enquiry had been followed. The considerable obstacles to obtaining sufficient evidence to prosecute in historical cases have been recognised by the High Court, which in 2013 ordered the MOD to establish a process of non-criminal quasi-inquests, which have become known as Iraq fatality investigations, to satisfy fully our obligations under the European convention on human rights. These IFIs are similar in form to a coroner’s inquest, and are conducted by an independent, retired judge. They are designed to provide the families of the deceased with answers and to help the armed forces learn lessons for the future.
While the fact that the 2003 report into Mr al-Musawi’s death contains inaccurate information is deeply concerning, there is insufficient evidence to refer anyone for an offence in relation to this incident. Having exhausted all reasonable and proportionate lines of enquiry, SPLI has uncovered no evidence that conclusively refutes the soldier’s assertion that he acted in self-defence. Indeed, two of the deceased’s brothers told investigations that Mr al-Musawi fired several shots into the air immediately prior to this shooting.
Today’s debate and previous debates on historical investigations have shown the strength of feeling on this vital issue. I am considering some key policy interventions to learn lessons from over 15 years of investigations and litigation arising from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am not of the opinion that any organisation the size of the UK’s armed forces will not have its challenging individuals. There is no doubt that some of the experiences of those who came into contact with the UK’s armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were completely unacceptable.
Sensing that the Minister is about to close, may I take him back, because he did ask me to remind him: does he think that after he brings forward his legislation there will be greater resource to investigate these affairs or not? In addition, is the Royal Military Police, in his view, in its current form fit for purpose?
What I will say to the hon. Gentleman is that, in my view, no option is off the table in reflecting, with respect to the past 15 years, on how we never end up in this position again. Resource in this investigation has not been a determining factor: over £50 million has gone into investigating these crimes—or alleged crimes—in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, this is not going to be some sort of paper exercise. It is a defining issue for many of us, and we will of course do this properly. I hope he will have seen from my comments this evening that there is absolutely no intention to cover anything up, to let anybody who sees uniform as a place where they can commit crimes to do so or to enable any of that behaviour, which is totally out of kilter with 99% of people’s experiences in the military. However, I am equally firm that the experience of too many of those who have served this nation in operations in subsequent years has been totally unacceptable, and in that respect this Prime Minister and this Government are going to redefine the debate.
The Minister is making an excellent point. I declare an interest in that my husband is a veteran himself—from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. For those who have been subject to investigation after investigation, are we providing enough psychological support and support in terms of their mental health? No matter the circumstances, one cannot help thinking that this must be a very stressful situation for them and their families, and as much as possible must be done.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I restate that the experiences of some of our finest people have been unacceptable. I speak to the process that they have been subjected to, and to the way that my Department has looked after them through that process. Since 2015 or 2016, when a few of us started working on this—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Leo Docherty.)
Having interrogated those processes, I am confident that we are now in a much better place to support those individuals. There are challenges in reaching out to those who served a longer time ago, but we are acutely aware of them, and the MOD now exists to support with the provision of legal costs and pastoral care, and to get those individuals through a very difficult situation.
A key function of a modern military force is the ability to document and evidence sensitive operations in a highly complex and challenging battlespace. We expect a relentless pursuit of excellence from all our armed forces, and particularly from the specialist units involved in these allegations. If we are to manufacture the political space to introduce increased legal protection for our armed forces, I am conscious that we must demonstrate the ability to hold our people firmly to account, which has not always been the case.
I hope that tonight the House and the country will have noted my determination to get this right. Those who break the law must and will be held to account where the evidence exists—that evidential point is paramount—and we cannot do so without evidence that breaches the threshold required for prosecution. I am equally firm, however, that this Government will simply not allow our legal processes to be exploited in an attempt to hound servicemen and women or to rewrite history. Most fair-minded men and women in this country understand that war is a supremely chaotic, dangerous, frightening and confused environment. This is not a cover for criminal behaviour; it is a tribute to the incredible standards and sacrifices of our armed forces, to which I again pay tribute tonight. Uniform is no place for those who cannot operate within the boundaries we ask them to, and we find that that view is most strongly shared by those who make up that community.
Question put and agreed to.