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Armed Forces: Steven Roberts Inquiry

Volume 688: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Why the Minister for Europe, Mr Geoff Hoon, formerly Secretary of State for Defence, refused the request of the coroner to give evidence to the inquest into the death of Sergeant Steven Roberts.

My Lords, on 14 December, the coroner presiding over the Sergeant Roberts inquest indicated his intention to invite the right honourable Geoff Hoon MP as a witness. Mr Hoon was overseas. The MoD offered a witness who could provide the evidence requested. The coroner and the family’s counsel indicated that the witness fully dealt with their questions, and the coroner confirmed that Mr Hoon’s attendance was not necessary. At no stage did Mr Hoon refuse to give evidence.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Sergeant Roberts came originally from my constituency and that I therefore took his widow and members of his family to see Mr Hoon, who, I have to report to your Lordships’ House, promised a full investigation and full disclosure of his death? Do the Government now accept the conclusion of the coroner that his death was the result of delay and serious failures? The coroner continued:

“I have heard justification and excuse and I put these to one side as I remind myself that Sergeant Roberts lost his life because he did not have that basic piece of equipment”.

Can the Minister confirm the clear inference of the evidence that was given to the inquest: that the deliberate decision to delay the ordering of essential sets of enhanced combat body armour was not a military or, indeed, a Civil Service decision, but was taken by the Secretary of State himself? Can the Minister also confirm the evidence given by Mr David Williams on behalf of the ministry that buying sufficient numbers of ECBA sets would,

“obviously indicate the department was pressing ahead with preparations for war while negotiations were still firmly at the diplomatic stage”?

Can the Minister confirm that this decision was a misguided attempt to distance the MoD from the conservative demand for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq and President Bush’s war preparations? Can the Minister finally confirm that it is not now the habit of his department to allow civil servants to answer for the misjudgment of the Secretary of State?

My Lords, I am aware, first, that the noble Lord was the Member for the constituency from which Sergeant Roberts came and I recognise his interest in this matter. He has asked me a number of questions and, with the indulgence of the House, I shall do my best to answer directly the points he made.

I absolutely do not accept that this was a political decision. Having looked at this, I believe that the advice from the military to Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State at the time, relating to decisions about equipment was the right advice. The decision that he took not to take action on certain elements that would give clear indication of a preparation for military action when a diplomatic process was going on was the right thing to do. We need to recognise, as a number of Members of this House who have held positions within the Ministry of Defence—either as Secretary of State or as ex-chiefs and members of the military—know, that often decisions have to be taken in very difficult circumstances and when there is significant diplomatic pressure. Those decisions have to be made taking acceptance of the risks in the real world. The military has to have the ability to do what is necessary to deal with those realities. I believe that we need to have the political will to take those decisions. We have to ask ourselves whether in future we are going to be prepared to take these kinds of decisions. On this side of the House we have that political will. The kind of questioning of decisions that has taken place in those circumstances degrades the military effectiveness of this country and is not to be pursued.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that lessons have been learnt from this tragedy, that enhanced combat body armour is now the standard body armour issued to all personnel on all operations and that that decision was taken by my right honourable friend Geoff Hoon when he was Secretary of State for Defence?

My Lords, my noble friend is right when he says that significant changes have been made to the policy on body armour. Decisions have been taken in the light of the lessons learnt from the tragic death of Sergeant Roberts—and, if I may say so, I am personally sorry for the death of Sergeant Roberts. His death has led to lessons being learnt. The most important lessons have concerned body armour policy and the provision of that armour. All our troops on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are now provided with enhanced combat body armour. We have developed the new Kestrel system, which provides protection for top-cover sentries. We have developed the Osprey system, to have the flexibility to meet threats. Lessons have also been learnt regarding logistics and the tracking system. These are a direct result of the “lessons learned” exercise that took place after Operation TELIC and they have been implemented.

My Lords, I appreciate that the Minister was not there when this happened, but I find his answer most surprising. The Government’s strategy at that time was to try and convince Saddam Hussein that if he did not comply with UN resolutions, he would face military action. So the right action to take was to give convincing evidence that military action was likely to take place, including preparing our forces for action if it came to that. It is absolutely tragic that the political decision was taken to somehow conceal the build-up to military action, which was counterproductive for the Government’s own policy at that time, which they have avowed to this House and to the country. I cannot accept the answer the Minister has given.

My Lords, with deep respect for the noble Lord’s experience, this was not a political decision. The military was considering and advising on elements of the equipment list. To order substantial numbers of further body armour pieces beyond the number held in stock—approximately 13,000 at the time, if I recall correctly—would have sent a clear signal about the particular type of operation being contemplated. With the political process as it was, it was judged that that was not the right thing to do. Once the United Nations Security Council resolution had been taken, that was progressed.

My Lords, my noble friend’s point was precisely that; it was a political judgment, and the Government’s judgment was wrong. Indicating that this was going to go ahead would have put pressure on Saddam Hussein to capitulate. Surely the Minister can understand that point and should address it.

My Lords, I fully understand the point—I just disagree with it. The point is that a judgment was taken by the Secretary of State at that time in that post, based on the military advice we had at the time. Having looked at that decision in the circumstances, I believe that it was right. I also respect people saying that they believe that it was the wrong decision, but to say that it was politically motivated is just plain wrong.

My Lords, does my noble friend think it appalling that some people opposite are trying to make political capital out of the tragic death of Sergeant Roberts?

My Lords, the important point my noble friend is making is that it is absolutely right that we have a process for reviewing the lessons learnt, but—this point came up last year in this House when we were discussing the Armed Forces Bill—we have to recognise the realities that our Armed Forces are often faced with. I notice that some people are calling for amendments to a Bill coming through this House so that the Ministry of Defence on operations would become subject to questions of corporate manslaughter. These are aspects of political correctness and political judgment. We have to recognise that our ability to apply military force effectively depends on military commanders and the Ministers who ask them to do the tough, difficult and dangerous tasks and relies on an acceptance of risk in the real world and the political will to get on and do it. I believe that on this side of the House we have that political will.