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Afghanistan: British Special Forces

Volume 823: debated on Thursday 14 July 2022

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat the Answer to the Urgent Question provided by my honourable friend Mr James Heappey, Minister for Armed Forces, in the other place earlier today. The response is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, on 12 July, the BBC broadcast an episode of ‘Panorama’ claiming evidence of criminality allegedly committed by Special 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 that in order to allow today’s Urgent Question you have waived the convention not to discuss matters that are sub judice, advice from MoD lawyers is that any discussion of specific details would be prejudicial to the ongoing litigation and that I am afraid I simply cannot enter into detail about specific allegations made on specific operations relating to specific people.

We recognise very much 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, however special, is above the law and the service police have already carried out extensive 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 instances in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2013. The service police concluded there was insufficient evidence to bring cases to the independent Service Prosecuting Authority. I should stress that both these organisations have 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, which 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 of the allegedly criminal events referred to in the ‘Panorama’ programme have already been fully investigated by the service police. However, we remain fully committed to any further reviews or investigations, where any 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 any new evidence be provided to it. 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 is requesting that new evidence, which makes little sense to me. But the RMP and the BBC are in discussions.

As I have said, if there is any new evidence presented to the Royal Military Police, it will be investigated. I am aware that the programme alleges the involvement of units for which it is MoD policy to neither confirm nor deny their involvement in any operational event. As such, I must refer in generalities to the Armed Forces in response to the questions I know colleagues will want to ask. I cannot refer to any specific service personnel who may or may not have served in these units. We should continue to recognise 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 like this tarnish the reputation of an organisation. We all want to see allegations like these investigated so that the fine reputation of the British Armed Forces can be untarnished and remain as high as it should be.”

I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer and the tone in which she gave it. I think that will be welcomed by all of us. I welcome the point she made in her remarks about nobody being above the law and join with her in saluting the bravery of our Special Forces.

It is essential that we maintain the confidence that we all have in our Special Forces. I welcome again the statement by the Minister that, unless I have misunderstood—and this is very important—the Government have asked “Panorama” for any new evidence to be given to the Royal Military Police. Can the Minister confirm that any such new evidence, if handed over to the Royal Military Police, will be fully investigated in an independent way, maybe in a similar way to which the Australian inquiry took place? Is it actively pursuing again and again with the BBC for this new evidence to be given to it? When new evidence is given, the Royal Military Police can look at it and then we can move forward in ensuring that these very serious allegations of dropped weapons and suspicious deaths can be looked into and it can be determined by a proper independent inquiry whether anything further needs to be done.

I thank the noble Lord for the tenor of his remarks. Yes, it is the case that the RMP has asked the BBC, the “Panorama” production team, to produce this evidence on which it founded the programme. If that evidence is produced and it is new evidence it will fully investigated and it will initially be the task of the Royal Military Police to do that. The police are independent of the chain of command and have the power to pursue these matters objectively and independently and in the best interests of serving justice.

My Lords, I also pay tribute very strongly to our Armed Forces personnel but, as the Minister said, these are grave allegations, especially in the context where, as we see with Ukraine, the moral leadership and professionalism of our Armed Forces and the reputation that we hold is very strong as far as the UK is concerned. Can the Minister be a bit more specific on the independent status of the Royal Military Police in how it will approach the new allegations? Would the Minister agree that there is a case for, and an opportunity for, a parallel, external, independent review of how these allegations are held? Ultimately the Royal Military Police Force is, as the Minister said, beyond the chain of command, but it is still an internal investigative authority.

The noble Lord will be aware that the Royal Military Police is indeed an independent investigatory authority that has been regarded as professional and effective. It engages regularly with its civilian counterparts to ensure that it is adopting best practice and pursuing the best approach for investigations. Initially, if new evidence is produced, it would be for the Royal Military Police to investigate that.

As to broader issues, the Secretary of State has been very clear that nothing is ruled out. Really, the starting point has to be whether there is new evidence. If so, it needs to be produced.

My Lords, I declare my interests as a serving member of the Army, somebody who served in Afghanistan and, perhaps most relevant, served as the Minister for the Armed Forces from 2017 to 2019.

I would like simply to reassure your Lordships’ House, as somebody who is as concerned as anybody about these allegations. When they first emerged, I was deeply impressed with the thoroughness of the investigation by the Royal Military Police, both within the United Kingdom and, crucially, within Afghanistan, perhaps learning the lessons of the past where such investigations were not thorough in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. It is of course in the Ministry of Defence’s own interests that these allegations are thoroughly investigated because, often, new allegations are not new at all but simply a rehash or second-hand views of allegations that have been made already.

Does my noble friend the Minister agree that the Royal Military Police is uniquely placed? With its knowledge of service matters, its ability to investigate historically within Afghanistan at the time and its own service personnel, it has the right people to continue this investigation.

I thank my noble friend. I am sure the House will have paid close attention to his authority in relation to these matters.

I reassure the House that the RMP is a professional, competent and well-trained investigative authority, and it has proven itself in that effectiveness on numerous occasions. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, it engages with the civilian police force to make sure that it is absolutely abreast of all the procedures and processes of modern technology.

My noble friend is quite right: if there is anything wrong, if anything criminal has happened and the evidence can be produced to substantiate that, of course it is in the interests of the MoD and the great majority of law-abiding, upstanding and honourable members of the military that these matters be investigated. I reassure him again that if we are made aware of any new evidence that supports the assertions made in the programme then, yes, they will be investigated.

My Lords, the SAS has an international reputation as the bravest and best. All I can say from my time as Secretary of State for Defence is that that is a well-earned reputation. The allegations are very grave. I do not intend to draw the Minister into any comments about specific allegations, but at the heart of the response from the MoD is the information, which is impressive, that extensive independent investigations have taken place and no charges were brought because there was no evidence to justify that.

My problem is that at the heart of the programme is an allegation that investigators told the police—this is apparently supported by some video evidence—that they were obstructed by the British military in their efforts to gather evidence. That is a fundamental and important allegation, which, separately from anything else, needs to be investigated.

I say to the noble Lord that, as he will understand from his own background, we need evidence. That is why the RMP has asked the BBC for the evidence. Where is the substance of the information on which it based this programme? That is what we are waiting to see. As I remarked in the Statement, the BBC wants to seek the RMP’s legal authority for seeking this information, which seems to be the most perverse way of approaching everyone’s interests in trying to find the truth and establish justice. Still, there is engagement between the RMP and the BBC and the noble Lord is correct: if there is evidence to support these very serious allegations, and it is new evidence, it will be investigated.

My Lords, is it not the case that if the investigators feel they are in need of advice, they can seek such advice from the Attorney-General?

My understanding is that the Royal Military Police are free to seek advice. As I said earlier, they may seek advice from the civilian police force. If confronted with legal issues, they may want to seek legal authority, and the Attorney-General may well be the appropriate destination to seek that advice from.

My Lords, does my noble friend not share my deep sense of unease that the BBC should choose to broadcast this programme before laying the evidence that it had before the appropriate authorities?

I think we all understand that journalism has a role in a democratic society, and journalists have a job to do and documentary producers seek to discharge that role. What I think is reprehensible is—in discharging that role without producing substantive evidence or explaining why that evidence has never been investigated before—to proceed to traduce reputations and, as I say, tarnish an honourable military force of which we are extremely proud, the British Army, in which the overwhelming majority of soldiers are upstanding, competent and professional individuals who abide by the law.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there are two issues involved here, legal and reputational? In law, people are innocent until they are proved guilty, but reputations can be besmirched by programmes such as “Panorama” even if there is insufficient evidence to bring a legal case. If there is evidence then quite clearly it needs to be pursued vigorously, but, if there is not, does the Minister accept that it would be insufficient for the MoD simply to say, “There is insufficient evidence to bring a criminal case”? It will have to adopt a more proactive approach to demonstrate to the British public that their confidence in the Special Forces is not misplaced and that proper procedures were followed.

I think we all understand the noble and gallant Lord’s interests in this with great sympathy. He will understand why I have to be generic in my references. We are actively seeking that new evidence. If it can be produced, action will be taken. There may then be the broader issue, if no new evidence can be produced, of what constitutes responsible journalism and what are the unacceptable consequences of irresponsible journalism.