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Baha Mousa Inquiry

Volume 730: debated on Thursday 8 September 2011


My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Corporal Mark Palin from 1st Battalion The Rifles, Marine James Wright from 42 Commando Royal Marines, Lieutenant Daniel Clack from 1st Battalion The Rifles and Sergeant Barry Weston from 42 Commando Royal Marines, who were killed on operations in Afghanistan recently; and Senior Aircraftman James Smart, from No. 2 (Mechanical Transport) Squadron, RAF Wittering, who was killed in Italy on Wednesday 20 July while supporting Operation Ellamy. My thoughts are also with the wounded and I pay tribute to the courage and fortitude in which they face their rehabilitation.

I should now like to repeat a Statement made in the other place by the Defence Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, with permission I would like to make a Statement on the report into the death of Mr Baha Mousa in Iraq in 2003. In any conflict, no matter what the reason for our country’s involvement and no matter how difficult the circumstances, what separates us from our adversaries are the values with which we prosecute it and the ethics that guide our actions.

To represent Britain, in war as well as in peace, is to represent our inherent democratic values, the rule of law and respect for life. When those values are transgressed, it is vital that we get to the bottom of what has happened, are open about the issues and their causes, make sure that what reparations we can make are made and do all we can to prevent it happening again. Only in that way can we ensure that those values hold firm, in how we think of ourselves and in how others perceive us.

I am today laying before the House the independent report published this morning by Sir William Gage as chairman of the public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr Baha Mousa in Iraq in 2003. I am grateful to Sir William and his team, who have produced a report that is sober, focused and detailed. Above all, I believe it to be both fair and balanced. It is, however, a painful and difficult read. As the report sets out, Baha Mousa was subject to violent and cowardly abuse and assaults by British servicemen whose job it was to guard him and treat him humanely, and this was the primary cause of his death.

This inquiry was rightly set up in 2008 by the previous Government with the intent to shine a spotlight on the events surrounding the death of Baha Mousa and to provide the most definitive account possible in the circumstances. It does that comprehensively. What happened to Baha Mousa and his fellow detainees in September 2003 was deplorable, shocking and shameful. The Ministry of Defence and the Army have previously made a full apology to the family of Baha Mousa and to his fellow detainees and have paid full compensation to them. We can take some limited comfort that incidents like this are extremely rare but we cannot be satisfied by that.

Given the seriousness of this case, there is a series of questions that I have asked myself and that others in this House will ask, too. Among these are, ‘Who was responsible and what happened as a consequence?’, ‘What action has been taken to prevent a recurrence?’, ‘Do we have the right protection in place today in Afghanistan?’, and, of course, ‘How will the Government respond to the recommendations made in the report?’.

First, on responsibility, the report makes clear the extent of the failings of individuals, the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces at the time and in earlier years. In addition to the shocking displays of brutality for which individuals are responsible, it is also clear that there were serious failings in command and discipline in the 1st Battalion Queen’s Lancashire Regiment. There was a lack of clarity in the allocation of responsibility for the prisoner-handling process, and sadly too there was a lack of moral courage to report abuse. However, it must be acknowledged that a small number behaved with both integrity and courage in reporting what they had witnessed. They are examples of how others should have behaved.

Wider than the battalion, there were also deficiencies in policies, orders and training relating to detention at that time. The chairman notes that there was inadequate doctrine on prisoner handling. There was a ‘systemic failure’ that allowed knowledge of the prohibition on abusive techniques made by the Heath Government to be lost over the years. The report confirms that the Army was underprepared for the task of handling civilian detainees, having expected after the end of war fighting to provide humanitarian aid rather than become involved in counterinsurgency activities.

Since this incident in 2003, six different Defence Secretaries have stood at this Dispatch Box. I am sure all will regret that it has taken so long to get to the bottom of what happened, and that even now the refusal of some involved to tell the whole truth means that it has not been possible to establish the full extent of the culpability of individuals. Their behaviour is a matter for their own consciences, but others must take responsibility for the wider failures and deficiencies.

This report does not mean that our investigations of the mistreatment of detainees are over. The evidence from the inquiry will now be reviewed to see whether more can be done to bring those responsible to justice. It would therefore not be appropriate to comment here in the House of Commons on specific individuals and the role they played in this appalling episode. Where individuals are still serving, I have asked the Chief of the General Staff to take urgent action to ensure that the Army’s ethical standards are upheld. That action is now under way through the chain of command.

The investigations of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, IHAT, which started work in November last year, are now well under way and are revealing evidence of some concern. It is too early to comment on what the conclusions of the IHAT investigations might be, but cases will be referred to the Director of Service Prosecutions if and when there is sufficient evidence to justify this.

Since 2003, action by the Ministry of Defence and the Army to address failings as they were identified has touched every aspect of the prisoner handling system, from policy and doctrine to ground-level directives as well as training and oversight. The changes wrought have been fundamental. The Army inspector’s report in 2010, validated by an independent expert adviser, is one example of the detailed scrutiny applied to the training and doctrine for handling detainees. I can assure the House that there is a commitment to continuous improvement at all levels inside and outside the Armed Forces.

As the report acknowledges, further positive changes have been made as a result of matters that emerged from evidence heard during this inquiry’s final module, module 4, which was a thorough scrutiny of our current detention policies, practices and training. The Minister for the Armed Forces and I take a close personal interest in detention matters in Afghanistan. I am confident that our approach to detention in Afghanistan is now markedly improved from the period rightly criticised in this report. But we are in no way complacent about the issues identified by Sir William. I can inform the House that I am accepting in principle all of his recommendations with one reservation. It is vital that we retain the techniques necessary to secure swiftly in appropriate circumstances the intelligence that can save lives. The recommendation that we institute a blanket ban during tactical questioning on the use of certain verbal and non-physical techniques referred to in the report as the harsh approach, I am afraid, I cannot accept. However, I share some of Sir William’s concerns and I have asked the Chief of the Defence Staff to ensure that this approach only be used by defined people in defined circumstances.

Let me conclude by saying this. In Iraq, between 2003 and 2008, 179 British personnel were killed serving their country and many more returned injured. In autumn 2003, the 1st Battalion Queen’s Lancashire Regiment faced an immensely difficult challenge as they attempted to bring law and order to a large area that had been subject to a brutally oppressive regime for many years. As Sir William acknowledges, the issues addressed in his report,

‘need to be understood in the operational context in which they occurred: the tempo of operations; the poor state of the local civilian infrastructure; a daily threat to life from both civilian unrest and an increasing insurgency; the deaths of fellow service personnel and incessant oppressive heat. In combination these factors made huge demands on soldiers serving in Iraq in 2003’.

There are few of us sitting in the comfort of the House of Commons who can claim to understand what that must have been like. However, the vast majority of Armed Forces personnel faced these same challenges and did not behave in the way outlined in this report. They represent the fine ethical values found day in and day out in our Armed Forces, and we must not allow the unspeakable actions of a very few to damage the reputation of the whole.

I want to make it clear that Baha Mousa was not a casualty of war. His death occurred while he was a detainee in British custody. It was avoidable and preventable, and there can be no excuses. There is no place in our Armed Forces for the mistreatment of detainees, and there is no place for a perverted sense of loyalty that turns a blind eye to wrongdoing or erects a wall of silence to cover it up. If any service man or woman, no matter the colour of uniform that they wear, is found to have betrayed the values this country stands for and the standards that we hold dear, they will be held to account. Ultimately, whatever the circumstances, rules or regulations, people know the difference between right and wrong. We will not allow the behaviour of individuals who cross that line to taint the reputation of the Armed Forces, of which the British people are rightly proud”.

I commend this Statement to the House.

My Lords, we also wish to express our sincere condolences to the families and friends of Corporal Mark Palin, Marine James Wright, Lieutenant Daniel Clack and Sergeant Barry Weston, who have lost their lives in operations in Afghanistan recently, and Senior Aircraftman James Smart, killed in Italy in July while supporting Operation Ellamy.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place by the Secretary of State and for giving me sight of the lengthy inquiry report. I have not been able fully to digest its contents, but the Minister is in the same position. However, even sight of the summary of the report and its conclusions is enough to know that a small group has acted in a shocking, brutal and totally unacceptable manner and, as the Minister has said, that there were serious failings in command and discipline in the 1st Battalion The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment.

I would like to add my thanks to Sir William Gage, the chairman of the public inquiry set up in 2008 by the previous Government into the events surrounding the death of Mr Baha Mousa, and to the members of his team for their detailed and thorough report. The report had to be painstaking, thorough and detailed because it appears that getting at the truth was not made any easier by the difficulties that some appeared to have in telling the truth.

The report makes it clear that the brutal and shocking behaviour was not just in relation to Mr Baha Mousa whose death occurred in British custody but also to other detainees. Other allegations of maltreatment are still being investigated by the Iraq historic allegations team, whose creation was announced in March 2010, which started in November 2010. Presumably, any further allegations will be investigated by this body.

A small group has acted in a way that is totally alien to the manner in which our Armed Forces conduct themselves and the standards they uphold, and is totally alien to the professionalism and bravery of our Armed Forces personnel, all too many of whom have given their lives or suffered life-changing injuries, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or over Libya. This report does nothing to diminish our pride in our Armed Forces. It is precisely because what happened is so far removed from the standards demanded and upheld that this inquiry has taken place, and why its findings will cause such dismay.

There are one or two points that I wish to raise with the Minister. As he has said, the Secretary of State has accepted all the recommendations except one, which was in relation to a blanket ban on the use of certain verbal and non-physical techniques referred to in the report as the “harsh approach”. Can the Minister say a little more about the reasons for not accepting this recommendation? Clearly, if such techniques are to continue to be used, there will be a need to have in place very firm and precise safeguards, to make sure that all concerned are fully aware of the limits of what can be done, and that those limits are not exceeded, however difficult the circumstances may be at the time.

Can I also ask the Minister if he is satisfied with the action that has been taken or is still to be taken to ensure that, as far as is humanly possible, there is no repeat of the unacceptable actions spelled out in the inquiry report, in Afghanistan or anywhere else? It is not just about making sure that appropriate processes and procedures are in place. It is presumably also about making sure that people who do have immediate responsibility for detainees have the qualities needed to meet the high demands that this role can place on the standards of behaviour of individuals concerned, particularly in the kinds of conditions and circumstances that were faced in Iraq, and also on their strength of character, to speak up if actions are being taken which they must know are unacceptable. It also means that those at the highest levels of command take a direct and active interest in what is actually happening to detainees, as opposed to what should be happening to them according to the rules and procedures. Can the Minister say what importance is attached to the role of being responsible for detainees, and whether he is satisfied that relevant checks or assessments are made of those who are given this onerous responsibility?

I want also to ask the Minister whether in the light of the inquiry report it is felt there is a need for any legislative measures to strengthen the position in relation to the treatment of detainees or the powers and duties of those who have responsibility for them. I ask that in the context that we currently have the Armed Forces Bill going through your Lordships’ House, and since there will presumably not be another one for five years, action on this point ought to be taken now if it is considered necessary.

The inquiry referred to an “inadequate doctrine” on prisoner handling, as the Minister has said, and also to a “systemic failure” that allowed knowledge of the prohibition on abuse techniques to be lost over the years. The 1972 Act banned certain interrogation techniques, but it appears from the inquiry report that the terms of the Act have been overlooked when it comes to training policies and orders relating to detention. Will the Minister give an assurance that the Act will be enforced, including the cultural change needed to ensure that?

A third point I would like to raise, and without asking the noble Lord the Minister to refer to any specific individuals mentioned in the report, is whether legal action will be taken, or is being considered, against any of those involved. I appreciate immunity from prosecution was given, but that presumably related only to an individual’s own evidence. Will the Minister say how many of those referred to in the report who are still currently serving have been suspended or have had other sanctions taken against them?

We support the statement the Minister has made. We are proud of our Armed Forces. We will not allow unacceptable and shocking behaviour by a small number of individuals to tarnish the reputation of our Armed Forces, and those who breach the standards we uphold must be held to account.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his support for the Statement and for the chairman’s thorough report. It is clear that what happened in 2003 was utterly deplorable, and we have apologised wholeheartedly to the detainees and to Baha Mousa’s family for that. As the noble Lord said, lessons must be learnt.

As the noble Lord said, there were serious failings in command and discipline in the 1st Battalion The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment but this shameful episode should not be a reflection on the Armed Forces in general. Indeed, we must not forget that over 120,000 British troops served in Iraq and that the vast majority conducted themselves with the highest standards of integrity and professionalism, often in difficult and dangerous circumstances. We are grateful to them and it is deeply regrettable that they have been let down by a very small minority.

Turning to the noble Lord’s questions, he asked first why we have rejected recommendation 23. As the Secretary of State said,

“It is vital that we retain the techniques necessary to secure swiftly in appropriate circumstances the intelligence that can save lives. The recommendation that we institute a blanket ban during tactical questioning on the use of certain verbal and non-physical techniques referred to in the report as the harsh approach, I’m afraid I cannot accept”.

He went on to explain, however, that he shared some of Sir William’s concerns and has,

“asked the Chief of Defence Staff to ensure that this approach is only … used by defined people in defined circumstances”.

The noble Lord asked whether we have taken action, as the previous Government did, to ensure that there was no repeat of those terrible circumstances. This is a very important question. We have moved on since Iraq. Questioning secures information that is vital for force protection and saves life. The questioning is highly regulated and important safeguards are in place, including the recording and monitoring of all interrogation sessions. Detainees are given ample opportunity, at various stages of the detention process, to raise concerns about their treatment. Very few concerns have been raised, and where there are any each is investigated by the Royal Military Police special investigation branch.

The chairman has recommended that we cease using the so-called “harsh approach”. The old harsh approach is no more but, as the Secretary of State said, we need to keep a broad range of techniques to allow us to extract intelligence that helps to save lives. The controlled use of short spells of shouting and a sarcastic, cynical tone of voice still have utility in questioning in certain circumstances. We have combined these elements into an approach that is now called challenging, which is very carefully defined and taught. It is designed to get detainees to focus on the questioning that they are undergoing. We will look again at our training and practices to ensure that any approach which challenges detainees conforms scrupulously in letter and in spirit to international humanitarian law.

The noble Lord asked whether those guarding detainees are given sufficient training. All personnel who deploy now have a good level of training in detention, because anyone could become involved in this activity. The Military Provost Staff, who are the detention experts, are highly trained professionals. They are deployed in Afghanistan to provide advice. Regimental provost staff also receive training in managing custody facilities, which has an operational element.

The noble Lord asked whether we needed to legislate to make any changes. I can confirm that we are looking at this. At the moment, we do not believe that we will need any legislation. The noble Lord asked if any legal action is being taken or considered against any of those involved. The service police will review the chairman’s findings on individuals—serving and non-serving—to establish whether any further investigation might be necessary. The military chain of command will also consider whether action should be taken against former, or serving, personnel. I anticipate a number of suspensions imminently of serving soldiers. Finally, as the noble Lord said, there is an awful lot to read in this excellent report. I would be very happy to organise a briefing in the Ministry of Defence on 18 October, when officials and the senior army officer most closely involved with the report will be on hand to brief Peers and answer any questions that they have.

My Lords, first, I join these Benches in the earlier tribute. I, too, thank my noble friend the Minister for repeating the Statement and for the offer of the briefing on 18 October. We have only had a few hours to study the 1,400 pages or so of this report. Clearly, in that time, one has only been able to skim through certain sections of it. It makes sickening reading. The horrifying thing is that, had Mr Baha Mousa not died, there would not have been an inquiry, a report or this Statement. Neither would there have been the 73 recommendations which, we hope, will prevent a ghastly act like this happening again.

I ask two specific questions. First, there has been a certain amount about Afghanistan in the press. What is the position in relation to our forces handing over detainees to the Afghan authorities and do we have any ability to monitor what happens to them when they are in Afghan hands? Secondly, would it be possible for the Ministry to investigate, possibly using closed-circuit television in some of our detention centres overseas or in our overseas prisons to give us an ability to monitor the behaviour of our troops and the treatment of detainees? If we had CCTV in this particular situation, perhaps this ghastly incident would not have happened.

I agree with my noble friend that this report makes ghastly reading. We monitor very carefully the detainees that we hold and we hand over detainees to the Afghans only very carefully. To the best of my knowledge, we do our best to monitor the detainees that we hand over to the Afghans. However, I will undertake to write to my noble friend on this point.

My Lords, I was the Chief of the General Staff in 2008 when, in conjunction with the then Secretary of State for Defence, the noble Lord, Lord Browne, it was agreed that the inquiry that has reported today should be convened. We knew that at some point in the future today would come and that this report would be difficult and a very uncomfortable experience. The inquiry reports on grave and shameful events but rightly says that they are a shocking deviation from the normal standards of behaviour expected from the Army.

We have rightly apologised to and compensated the family of Mr Baha Mousa. Of course, that is no real compensation for what happened. Does the Minister agree with me that today’s report would not have come about had the Army not been open and transparent prior to the inception of this inquiry, and that it was only the publication of the Aitken report—we commissioned that internal report ourselves as we were already disturbed by what we had learnt—that brought about the decision by the then Secretary of State for Defence, the noble Lord, Lord Browne, to instigate this report? I offer that comment and look to the Minister for agreement simply to enable me to say that we do not, and will not, tolerate disgraceful behaviour from any rank in the Armed Forces or the Army. High standards, according to our core values and standards, are absolutely key when we deploy on a foreign operation, and do so in a position, whether wittingly or unwittingly, close to the moral high ground, and knowing that when actions like this occur we fall from the high ground to the valley in a trice under the full glare of the media.

Today is a desperately sad day for the reputation of the Army and for a number of members of it who know that their conduct has been less than it should have been and can be described only as disgraceful. However, we have tried to cover up nothing. The Aitken report laid the foundation which gave the previous Government the opportunity to instigate this inquiry. We fully accept its outcome.

My Lords, of course, I agree entirely with the noble Lord. The Army has been very open and transparent and we should congratulate it on that. The noble Lord said that this is a sad day for the Army. It is a very sad day for a small number of people who behaved outrageously. The Army should be congratulated on the very open and transparent way in which it has reacted. The noble Lord said that he was the Chief of the General Staff when the noble Lord, Lord Browne, set up the report. I compliment the noble Lord, who is not in his place, on setting up this very important report.

My Lords, I hope that noble Lords will not misunderstand me. My reading of this is that the behaviour was unforgivable, but we are not discussing the behaviour of professional interrogators. Interrogation is a subtle art. There is the problem of when discomfort becomes torture. If we were to introduce draconian legislation in relation to the interrogation processes and techniques that our professionals use, we would be in danger of hamstringing ourselves in obtaining the intelligence that is needed. We have to be very careful here because if we do not get the intelligence that we need—often time is of the essence—another of our airliners will fall out of the sky and a chunk of one of our cities or utilities will be destroyed. Certainly, if there is a threat of an action about to take place involving some chemical mixture which puts the population at risk, the interrogation teams, who are very professional—there are strict rules—must not be hamstrung so that they cannot get the relevant information. This is a very delicate subject but national security is paramount. Under the very careful rules that apply, we have to make certain that the interrogation system in our country gets the vital information that saves lives and stops terrorist and criminal activity.

My Lords, the noble Viscount makes a very important point and I quite agree with him. The ability to seek and obtain intelligence from detainees is too important but we will always seek to ensure that it is done within the constraints of the Geneva conventions. The UK Armed Forces are at all times subject to English criminal law. MoD policy reflects applicable international law, including prohibitions on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

My Lords, I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the Statement. It has been said that today is a sad day, but I have to say that I feel extremely proud of being in a nation that allows such an all-embracing report to be produced. I am extremely proud of being a member of the Armed Forces of this nation where the vast majority of them perform amazingly and with all the constraints that they should in very difficult circumstances. Does the Minister agree that I should feel that way?

My Lords, I quite agree with the noble Lord and feel very proud to be a Minister at this time. I congratulate the previous Government on what they did to initiate this report; as the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, said, the Army has been very open in the way in which it has followed up on these terrible deeds.

My Lords, I apologise, too, for not being here at the beginning of the Statement but I have been able to read it. There was misinformation about what time the noble Lord would be standing up.

I welcome the Statement and the report. I ask the Minister, first, to consider whether he agrees that it entirely vindicates the decision taken, although criticised at the time, to bring prosecutions. Secondly, would he also agree that there remain questions to be answered, which Sir William Gage said were not a part of his inquiry, as to how the criminal investigations took place? The Minister may recall that he and I have debated these matters before on concerns that I have in relation to that. Thirdly, would he agree—I have in mind statements that he himself made in July 2005 in this House on a debate on prosecutions—that it would not be right in the light of these findings to describe a need to look at these matters in the light of law as anything to do with political correctness? What undermines respect for the discipline and for the armed services is not trying to uncover what took place and to deal with it, but the sort of circumstances that sadly we now know from Sir William Gage did take place and with at least the absence of knowledge of senior officers, standing by and not doing anything.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for his support for the Statement and for the report. I can confirm that the noble and learned Lord’s Government acted at all times in a very proper and correct way in this matter.

My Lords, I am conscious that we are running rather ahead of time and that not everyone is here for the next debate, although I note that the Leader of the Opposition is. I suggest that we adjourn for five minutes to enable everyone to join us.

Sitting suspended.