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British Special Forces in Afghanistan: New Allegations

Volume 718: debated on Thursday 14 July 2022

Before I call John Healey to ask his urgent question, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that there are active judicial review proceedings in relation to the allegation of unlawful killings in Afghanistan. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on matters of sub judice to allow references to those legal challenges, as they concern matters of national importance. This applies to today’s urgent question and to relevant future business.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on new allegations concerning British special forces in Afghanistan.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your very careful consideration of this urgent question request.

On 12 July, the BBC broadcast an episode of “Panorama”, claiming evidence of criminality allegedly committed by the UK armed forces in Afghanistan. The Ministry of Defence is currently defending two judicial reviews relating to allegations of unlawful killings during operations in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012. While I accept, Mr Speaker, that to allow today’s urgent question you have waived the convention that we do not discuss matters that are sub judice, advice from Ministry of Defence lawyers is that any discussion of specific detail of the cases would be prejudicial to the ongoing litigation, and thus I am afraid I simply cannot enter into detail about specific allegations made on specific operations relating to specific people.

I am slightly concerned. I did ask for the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), to be fully briefed by officials within the MOD, so that I would not have to be put in this position. Unfortunately, that has not been forthcoming, so I am very disappointed. I would have thought that a senior Minister, and certainly officials, would have gone through why they will not be discussing this. That did not happen, and I have been put in this position, so I am disappointed that the MOD did not take it seriously.

Let me apologise on behalf of the Department for the fact that you, Mr Speaker, and the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne were put in that position. I was not aware of the request that you had made, but I assure you that, when I return to the Department, I will investigate fully why that was not responded to in the way that it should have been.

We very much recognise the severity of these allegations, and where there is reason to believe that personnel may have fallen short of expectations, it is absolutely right that they be held to account. Nobody in our organisation, no matter how special, is above the law. The service police have already carried out extensive and independent investigations into allegations about the conduct of UK forces in Afghanistan, including allegations of ill-treatment and unlawful killing. No charges were brought under Operation Northmoor, which investigated historical allegations relating to incidents in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2013. The service police concluded there was insufficient evidence to refer any cases to the independent Service Prosecuting Authority. I stress that both these organisations have the full authority and independence to take investigative decisions outside of the MOD’s chain of command.

A separate allegation from October 2012 was investigated by the Royal Military Police under Operation Cestro. It resulted in the referral of three soldiers to the Service Prosecuting Authority. In 2014, after careful consideration, the director of service prosecutions took the decision not to prosecute any of the three soldiers referred. It is my understanding that all the alleged criminal offences referred to in the “Panorama” programme have been fully investigated by the service police, but we remain fully committed to any further reviews or investigations when new evidence or reason to do so is presented.

A decision to investigate allegations of criminality is for the service police. They provide an independent and impartial investigative capability, free from improper interference. Earlier this week, the Royal Military Police wrote to the production team of “Panorama” to request that any new evidence be provided to them. I am placing a copy of the RMP’s letter in the Library of the House. I understand that the BBC has responded to question the legal basis on which the RMP are requesting that new evidence, which makes little sense to me, but the RMP and the BBC are in discussions. As I have said, if any new evidence is presented to the Royal Military Police, it will be investigated.

I am aware that the programme alleges the involvement of a unit for which it is MOD policy to neither confirm nor deny its involvement in any operational event. As such, I must refer in generality to the armed forces in response to the questions that I know colleagues will want to ask, and I cannot refer to any specific service personnel who may or may not have served in those units.

We should continue to recognise that the overwhelming majority of our armed forces serve with courage and professionalism. We hold them to the highest standards. They are our nation’s bravest and best, and allegations such as these tarnish the reputation of our organisation. We all want to see allegations such as these investigated, so that the fine reputation of the British armed forces can be untarnished and remain as high as it should be.

No one doubts the bravery of all those who served in Afghanistan, nor the extreme risks they faced. And the Minister is right: our British armed forces have a proud tradition of upholding the very highest standards of military ethics and professionalism, and the international laws of armed conflict and human rights. This is fundamental to Britain as one of the world’s leading democracies, so the allegations reported in Tuesday night’s “Panorama” programme could not be more serious—a pattern of suspicious deaths, with newly obtained military reports suggesting that one unit may have unlawfully killed 54 people in a single six-month tour; “drop weapons” planted to fabricate evidence, with the squadron’s reports “causing alarm at headquarters”; and those at the top warned, but not acting to stop the pattern of killings and withholding crucial details from the military police. Verifying the truth in any new evidence should matter most to military leaders and the MOD. This will not be buried.

What action are the Government taking to respond to the growing calls from military figures, including the former Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David Richards, for a thorough investigation? I welcome the Minister’s statement today that, if there is any new evidence, it will be investigated, but how can he argue that the service police can credibly tackle this task when “Panorama” exposes the systemic failures in their investigations, just as the Government’s own Lyons review highlighted gaps in capabilities in the military police, and when the new defence serious crime unit, designed to fix the problems, will not be up and running until the end of the year?

There were similar claims from the same period against Australian special forces. However, these have been investigated thoroughly via a special inquiry commissioned by the head of the army, not Ministers. That inquiry had independence, justice and military experience, and welfare support. It had privacy, immunity and compulsory questioning powers to get to the truth. Justice Brereton’s report confirmed credible evidence that members of Australian special forces were responsible for the unlawful killing of 39 people. It made 143 recommendations, all accepted by the Australian defence force, and referred 36 matters to the federal police for criminal investigation. Will the Government now do the same and investigate these claims and any cover-up in the chain of command, to secure justice for any of those affected and above all to protect the reputation of our British special forces?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: this will not be buried. Absolutely nobody in the Ministry of Defence wants to see these sorts of allegations buried. That does no service to our armed forces whatsoever. These allegations will be investigated fully, if the new evidence is handed over.

The investigation by the RMP itself has already been double-checked, as it were, by a recently retired chief constable and a senior QC, and they agreed that the investigation was sound. Further to that, there has been the Henriques review, published in October 2021, which recognised only too well that there were problems—failings, if you like—in the military justice system that needed to be resolved, so ahead of this there has already been a recognition that the military justice system could work better. The Henriques review identifies many of the ways that it could.

The Secretary of State was clear when I spoke to him earlier in the week on this matter that he is not ruling out any type of public inquiry or review if it is clear that there are failings that need to be looked at. The MOD wants this to be as transparent as possible, so that everybody can have confidence in the service justice system and the reputation of our armed forces can remain untarnished.

The Minister is right to say that there is scope for a systems review, and we must always keep our processes under review. However, would he agree that it is very important not to make insinuations or suggestions that could tarnish the reputation of parts of our armed forces that are among our finest? Those of us who have experience of operations know how difficult circumstances can be. Would he agree with me that the overwhelming majority of the men and women of our armed forces serve this country and do our bidding with honour and courage, and we must not seek to disparage them in any way?

Obviously, I very much agree with what my right hon. Friend has said, and we do have to be careful. What was published on Tuesday was a television programme in which some new evidence, allegedly, was brought to light, but the service police have asked the BBC to share that evidence with them so that it can be investigated. Beyond that, a lot of the allegations, particularly those relating to individuals, were very carefully calibrated to reach a certain point without crossing a line that might have got the production team in trouble with libel lawyers. I think we have to be very careful, as my right hon. Friend says, to be clear that what is said in TV programmes is not said in a court of law and has not been investigated by the police. We have asked the production team to hand over the evidence they have, and we must very careful not to impugn individuals based on what a production company insinuated, rather than actually alleged, in the programme.

The overwhelming majority of those who serve in the armed forces do so with honour and courage, and we are rightly proud of their service, but by defending or failing to investigate properly the bad eggs that exist we tarnish everyone’s reputation. The “Panorama” programme should concern us all, especially since these accounts were given by those within the armed forces themselves. The documentary described “kill or capture” night raids, the systematic killing of detainees and unarmed civilians, planted weapons, competitions between squadrons on the numbers killed, and cover-ups by senior officers. If senior officers knew of such behaviour, why was no action taken? If they did not know, why not?

The Ministry of Defence has so far treated the allegations with some flippancy, saying the documentary “jumps to unjustified conclusions”. The House needs an assurance that the review of this material will be carried out by an independent investigator. Flaws in the investigatory process and potential cover-ups by senior officers should be included. There must be democratic oversight of our special forces, and I would appreciate the Minister’s reassurance that this is something he is considering. Finally, how is the MOD investigating failures in the chain of command?

Can I remind Members that there are set times for urgent questions? The SNP has one minute, but that was over one and a half minutes. If I am going to grant urgent questions, Members know the rules and they have to stick to the rules. Please can you all take that on board?

I could not disagree more with the suggestion that the MOD has been flippant over the investigation of these events. I think nobody would pretend that Operation Northmoor was not slow to get off the ground in the first place. That is already the subject of what the Secretary of State has asked to be reviewed. When the initial service police investigation was completed, a recently retired chief constable and a senior QC were asked to revisit the investigation to check that the processes were sound.

The MOD, at every turn, has wanted to see this done properly because we believe more than anybody else, especially those of us in the Department who have previously served, that nobody in our nation’s armed forces benefits from even the slightest suggestion that there is protection on the basis that they are too special, too brave or too courageous. Our armed forces get their licence to operate around the world from the fact that they are held to the very highest of standards, and everybody in the MOD believes that should be the case.

My hon. Friend knows, because of his service in the armed forces, how morale can be affected by any form of investigation into units, and it reduces the effectiveness of any fighting force. Although this happened some time ago, does my hon. Friend agree that we must make absolutely sure that soldiers who are serving now within the Special Air Service and the armed forces realise that any inquiry will be done quickly and efficiently, that recommendations will be carried out by the Government as soon as they can, and that the morale of the troops and the units in which they serve will be held at the highest level, to ensure that we are fighting efficient at all times?

Yes, Mr Speaker. We are obviously always concerned for the morale of our nation’s armed forces, and investigations such as this can have an impact on morale. At the risk of disagreeing with my constituency neighbour, I think that sometimes morale must come secondary to doing what is right. That is why the Chief of the General Staff rightly removed the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment from an operational deployment this summer, and why the Royal Air Force Red Arrows are flying with fewer planes this display season than they would normally do. People in the MOD have the courage to do the right thing, even if it might cause some concern within the ranks. What matters is the institutional representation of our nation’s armed forces.

Having met members of our special forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the Defence Committee and as a Minister, I have nothing but the utmost respect for them and the difficult job that we ask them to do. These allegations will be appalling to them as individuals, but I say to the Minister that this will not go away. Let me suggest what should happen. We do not want a lengthy inquiry, but I suggest putting in charge of an inquiry a former judge advocate general who understands the military context of this issue, and who could look quickly at the allegations and ensure that those that need investigating get investigated, and that we get answers. This stain on the reputation of those good servicemen who we rely on to protect us cannot be allowed.

This will not go away, we do not want it to go away, and the Secretary of State has told me that he does not want anything to be ruled out at the Dispatch Box today. I am certain that the House will hear from him in the near future about what he thinks is the right way to do exactly as the right hon. Gentleman suggests.

The sad fact is that it seems that a large number of people died, and the allegations made against the special services are very serious indeed. Does the Minister think it appropriate that the Royal Military Police should be conducting these investigations at all? Should it not be done by an outside body? In response to the question from the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), does the Minister think it is time for special forces to be brought under the same democratic accountability as the rest of the armed services?

I have every confidence in the independence of the Royal Military Police as an independent police force, free of political influence or influence from the chain of command, just as I have confidence that all other police forces are proudly operational and independent. No, I do not think that the special forces should be moved into a position of more overt democratic oversight. The reason for that is that the work that they do is right at the extreme end of the threat envelope. The risk to life and limb is profound, and what they do in defence of our nation’s interest is extraordinary. If we were to compromise that even in the slightest, our nation would be at a disadvantage, and brave people would be in severe peril.

We all understand the dangers, pressures and awfulness of armed conflict, and that is precisely why we have rules of engagement and the Geneva convention, in order to set boundaries. When those boundaries are breached, that has to be dealt with. May I urge the Department to listen to Lord Richards, who had some considerable experience in this, and also to learn from Australia? Will Ministers have discussions with their Australian counterparts, ministerial and military alike, to learn from their effective and successful way of dealing with a not dissimilar problem?

There is a lot that we discuss with our great friends in Canberra, and every day we find new things to talk about. The relationship between the ministerial teams is ever closer. The right hon. Gentleman is exactly right: there is lots to learn from the way that the Australians approach this. It is important to say, again, that this is not the House encouraging us to take a second pass at only one investigation. This was investigated and verified, and we have been clear that if new evidence comes to light, we will investigate that too. As I said to the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), the Secretary of State is clear that he rules nothing out, and he will be in touch with the House shortly to say how he thinks this might be further reviewed.

The Minister is absolutely right that insinuendo is not the same as evidence or proof of guilt, and nobody wants to tarnish the reputation of the British armed forces without due reason, but the allegations are important and serious. Following on from what you said, Mr Speaker, will the Minister ensure that there is a proper briefing for the shadow Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), and perhaps for the Select Committee on Defence as well, so that people can look at this matter without having to worry about sub judice concerns?

Mr Speaker, I can absolutely promise that there will be a briefing for the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne and for you, Sir. There may be an issue over Privy Council terms for the Select Committee at large, but I will look into that suggestion as well.

We on the Liberal Democrat Benches also pay tribute to the courage, bravery and ingenuity of UK special forces and all of our armed forces, but of course it is incumbent on them to follow the laws of armed conflict. Does the Minister agree that members of the armed forces will be first among those wanting to see those laws applied and abided by, so that we can continue to call out the war crimes that we see happening in places such as Kremenchuk, Irpin and Bucha?

First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House and to his place as his party’s defence spokesperson, and pay tribute to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), who was an excellent defence spokesman before him.

Speaking as a veteran to a veteran, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: nobody who has served in the uniform of our nation’s armed forces wants to be treated as if they can get away with whatever they like. We want to be held to a standard, because that gives us our licence to operate when we train other nations’ armed forces around the world and when we have to do difficult things in dangerous places. That licence to operate is our most important weapon.

So many members of our armed forces sacrificed so much in Helmand, yet our armed forces and all of us have to have confidence in our processes. What discussions have the Minister and the Secretary of State had with our international partners, including those within NATO, about the processes they adopt to ensure objectivity, accountability and independence?

A lot of these matters are governed by international treaties, conventions and laws that all our allies within NATO hold in common, and that we all work to enforce. So much of the outrage over the way the Russians have behaved in Ukraine—to reference the question raised by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord)—is due to the fact that that army has not followed those international laws, conventions and treaties. NATO prides itself on behaving in the way that international law requires, and the British armed forces more than anyone.

I also pay tribute to all of our forces and special forces for their bravery, courage, determination and perseverance. Some 1,281 allegations were made after the closure of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, and £20 million in settlements was paid out by the Ministry of Defence. Will the Minister confirm that the importance of discharging our duty of care has been taken on board, and that the further allegations made in the programme will be taken seriously, but according to the premise that people are innocent until proven guilty, not simply accused of being guilty?

The allegations in the programme will be taken very seriously if new evidence is handed across to the service police that they can investigate. What we will not do is react to a lot of insinuation and what appears to be a repetition of allegedly criminal events that have already been investigated—that is not in itself enough to say that the service police need to reopen that investigation. Hopefully, the BBC will hand across whatever new evidence it has.