[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the case of Sgt Alexander Blackman (Marine A).
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I believe is the first time, Mr Pritchard. Before I start, I welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), for Wells (James Heappey), and for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), along with our colleague, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I thank them for coming to this debate. I also welcome Sergeant Blackman’s family, friends and relations, and the four members of the Royal Marines who are also here to listen.
We shall be debating an incident that took place thousands of miles away in one of the most hostile environments on earth; in fact, it is so hostile that 454 of our finest servicemen and woman have been killed there, and thousands more wounded. Lance Corporal Cassidy Little is one of those wounded men. He served with Sergeant Blackman during the fateful tour and is present today to support the debate. On behalf of us all, I thank him and his colleagues for their bravery, courage and devotion.
In Afghanistan, the enemy were clever, motivated, difficult to identify, ruthless and cruel. Torture and death faced those who fell into their hands. It was into this hellhole that Alexander Blackman and his fellow Royal Marines from 42 Commando were pitched in 2011. Sergeant Blackman was a 15-year veteran of six operational tours: one in Northern Ireland and three in Iraq, and he was on his second in Afghanistan. There is nothing that this former Royal Marine has not seen. In each tour he had served his country and his corps with great distinction and courage. He was that most valued member of the Royal Marines, the elite’s elite—a senior non-commissioned officer—and he had been recommended for promotion, but then came his last tour in Helmand province, the toughest of his military career.
Sergeant Blackman was posted to the remote command post Omar, with 15 younger Royal Marines under his command. They lived for more than six months in a small mud enclosure, in appalling conditions of physical discomfort. Daily, they patrolled on foot for up to 10 hours in a large hostile area where the Taliban were most active. IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, the roadside landmines favoured by the Taliban, were a constant threat, to the extent that the squad seldom used their vulnerable Jackal vehicle, preferring to patrol on foot instead. They were aware that hundreds of their comrades had already been killed or maimed by IEDs. The psychological impact was devastating. Firefights with the Taliban were common. So, too, were deaths and life-threatening injuries. Overall, 42 Commando lost seven men, and a further 45 were injured, many of them very seriously indeed.
On 28 May 2011, several Marines from Sergeant Blackman’s troop were tasked with establishing a new base in an area known as the badlands. During the operation, Corporal Little was caught in the same blast that killed Sergeant Blackman’s troop commander, Lieutenant Ollie Augustin, and Marine Sam Alexander, who had won a Military Cross on a previous tour. The blast also badly wounded Lance Corporal JJ Chalmers. Later that day, the Royal Marines discovered body parts hanging mockingly in a tree. We can all imagine the effect of such an incident on hard-pressed, very young troops.
While holding it together in such atrocious conditions, Sergeant Blackman’s frequent complaints to headquarters about the impossibility of performing his assigned tasks with such a small number of men for a period far longer than the recommended tour of duty went unanswered. He had one sole visit from his commanding officer, which shows how stretched 42 Commando was. For month after month, the huge weight of responsibility bore down on him as he tried to maintain morale, but a combination of factors were taking their toll.
When my hon. Friend says six months, does that mean Sergeant Blackman had no R and R?
I welcome my gallant colleague to the debate. He did have two weeks for R and R.
Those factors taking their toll included: the inadequacy of the accommodation, equipment and supplies; Sergeant Blackman’s inability to sleep; the almost total lack of supervision; the general isolation; the recent death of his father; the ever-present fear of death or injury; exhaustion; and the strain of keeping the young men under his command alive, in itself an awesome responsibility.
On 15 September 2011, towards the end of their fraught tour, Sergeant Blackman and his patrol were directed to an insurgent who had been fatally wounded by gunfire from an Apache helicopter. Horribly exposed in a known hotspot for enemy activity, they knew that other insurgents were in the area. They dragged the fatally wounded man to cover. That Sergeant Blackman then shot him is beyond doubt: the incident was filmed by a head camera worn by one of the Marines on patrol. I have seen all the footage. What he did was unequivocal. He appeared calm and matter of fact—points made by Judge Advocate General Blackett in sentencing. However, no camera on earth can capture all the circumstances leading to that one momentary loss of control, or what was going on in Sergeant Blackman’s mind at the time.
Except for Corporal Little and his colleagues, none of us here has endured anything remotely approaching what those Royal Marines experienced, and, God willing, we never will. Although both the court martial and the Court of Appeal said that they took into account mitigating circumstances with regard to the sentence, Jonathan Goldberg, QC, who now heads the defence team and is here today, believes that a number of significant mistakes were made. The court was never given the chance to consider the lesser verdict of manslaughter by reason of loss of control owing to the appalling stresses to which Sergeant Blackman was subjected for months on end.
Mr Goldberg advises that, by law, the judge advocate general had a duty to direct the jury on all verdicts reasonably open to them, regardless of whether the prosecution or defence chose to raise them. The verdicts included the ability for a jury to return a verdict of not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter. Possible routes to such a manslaughter verdict included: temporary loss of control after months of cumulative stress; diminished responsibility owing to battlefield fatigue and post-traumatic stress disorder; and finally, by reason of an unlawful act, in that Sergeant Blackman admitted desecrating a dead body.
Inexplicably, none of the above possible lesser verdicts were ever raised, either at the court martial or on appeal. The judge advocate general failed to direct the jury panel on those available lesser alternatives, instead imposing the mandatory life sentence for murder, resulting in a good man serving a minimum of eight years in jail without being allowed to seek parole.
On the other hand, a manslaughter verdict on these extraordinary facts could reasonably have resulted in three years in prison at worst and a suspended sentence at best. Sergeant Blackman insists that he was never advised by his then defence team that a manslaughter verdict was even a possibility. Indeed, he knew nothing of the manslaughter option until recently, when his new defence took over. Almost unbelievably in a murder case of such complexity, Sergeant Blackman was never offered a psychiatric assessment prior to his conviction. Moreover, it is bizarre that the Judge Advocate General’s said this in his sentencing remarks after conviction:
“We accept that you were affected by the constant pressure, ever present danger and fear of death or serious injury. This was enhanced by the reduction of available men in your command post so that you had to undertake more patrols yourself and place yourself and your men in danger more often. We also accept the psychiatric evidence presented today that when you killed the insurgent it was likely that you were suffering to some degree from combat stress disorder.”
The psychiatric report he referring to was presented before sentencing and not conviction. In other words, the panel did not know about the report when they found Sergeant Blackman guilty. Why not? What was the defence team up to?
Further evidence that was never heard at Sergeant Blackman’s court martial comes in the form of a 50-odd page document—the Telemeter report. Written by Brigadier Huntley, a few pages of the executive summary were released only this morning, despite frequent requests for the whole report to be published. Apart from criticising Sergeant Blackman, it confirms that there were concerns that the culture within 42 Commando
“was perceived by many…to be overly aggressive.”
The report also states:
“A number of those involved in this incident both directly and indirectly, felt that the Chain of Command had failed to provide them with adequate support before, during and after the court martial.”
As a former commanding officer, I find it extraordinary that this group of Royal Marines was left in the same position, obviously one of huge danger, for the whole six months. Was the rotation of the men in that position not considered?
That is a good question, and one that my hon. Friend can perhaps ask afterwards of the Royal Marines who were on that tour. As I understand it, they were covering a vast area of land, they were under-resourced and undermanned, and rotation was not possible.
I do not know. It is perhaps something that the report—the 50 or so pages that we have not seen—may hint at. We call for the report to be published now, so that the new defence team can use it to build up its case. Ultimately, we will have to wait until, as we hope, the Criminal Cases Review Commission takes up the case and demands the release of the report, or the bits of it that we have not seen.
On the psychiatric report, I believe that the sergeant was in hospital for a week, yet no reports were submitted about how he was, what the conclusions were and what his state was when he got home. Will my hon. Friend expand on that a little further? He mentioned it just now, but I think there is a bit more to say.
I am unable to expand on that particular point other than to say what I have already said, which is that the psychiatric report was there for sentencing, but not for conviction. That is what I know. He did spend some time in hospital, but I cannot expand on that particular period.
Or on how crucial it would be to have that?
I am afraid that I cannot expand on that.
Order. For the benefit of Hansard, I encourage Members to stand if they want to intervene.
I give way to my hon. Friend.
Rather than mention this in my remarks later on, it is perhaps relevant to do so now. I was the adjutant of 2 Rifles in Sangin during Operation Herrick X in 2009, and there was a well-established mechanism of TRiM—trauma instant management—which is the peer-to-peer post-traumatic stress management of people after each traumatic experience. Those records should exist within Sergeant Blackman’s unit. If that process had been done properly, it should have been identified well before he reached his breaking point that he was very much at risk. Those records should exist. If they have not come to light, it is a gross injustice.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I cannot expand on that too much now, but we are aware that Colonel Oliver Lee, Royal Marines, had written a report identifying seven criteria that commanding officers should look out for. I also believe that, as far as Colonel Lee was concerned, Sergeant Blackman ticked every box.
From reading what we have of the executive summary of the Telemeter report—what we have got of it—there is strong reason to believe that the full report is critical of the overall command structure, including the lack of supervision over Sergeant Blackman and his men, which would certainly support Sergeant Blackman’s claims. A sergeant in the Royal Marines is probably—I will get myself into trouble here—superior to, shall we say, a line regiment sergeant, in the sense that they are trained to be far more independent. That was one explanation given to me as to why, in this instance, Sergeant Blackman was left out there for as long as he was—because he was a sergeant and highly respected, and so on.
However, what happened in this instance struck me, too, as extremely odd—my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) hinted at this earlier on, and I agree with him. We are both former soldiers, and it was our duty as officers to visit our men and make quite certain that they were safe and well and doing the job that they should be doing, because that was our task. If we did not do that, things began to unravel. Maybe that was one of the reasons why things unravelled in this particular instance.
Going back to the report—50 pages of which, as I have said, still remain unseen—it is no surprise that the Daily Mail and Frederick Forsyth thunder about a cover-up and attempts to make Sergeant Blackman a scapegoat for a much wider failure of high command. Would the full report have given Sergeant Blackman a better chance in court had it been written and published openly shortly after the events, rather than long after his conviction? Vice-Admiral Jones has reportedly asked both serving and former officers not to comment if the press start asking questions.
Also of great concern is the resignation of Colonel Lee. As I understand it, he was a high-flier who resigned his commission in disgust over how Sergeant Blackman was treated and the refusal to call him in evidence at the court martial. Colonel Lee became Sergeant Blackman’s commanding officer just six days before the incident, although they never met.
How come the defence counsel did not call the commanding officer to give evidence?
Again, I am regrettably not a trained QC or lawyer—I wish I were. All I understand is that he was not, which can be further explored by the QC, who is actually in the room here today.
When he resigned, Colonel Lee wrote the following, which is one of the most damning indictments that I have found in the 10 or 11 months that I have been involved in this sad case:
“Sgt Blackman’s investigation, court martial and sentencing authority remain unaware to this day of the wider context within which he was being commanded when he acted as he did.”
He went on:
“My attempts to bring proper transparency to this process were denied by the chain of command. Sgt Blackman was therefore sentenced by an authority blind to facts that offered serious mitigation…The cause of this is a failure of moral courage by the chain of command.”
That is a devastating criticism and hardly a ringing endorsement of military justice. Colonel Lee’s evidence will be important if the case is referred to the appeal court by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which we trust it will be. It must be.
Sergeant Blackman’s conviction in 2013 left a deep impression on me as a former soldier. I visited him in Lincoln prison in December 2014—had I not, I would have gone to my grave with this nagging whatever you like to call it on my conscience and preying on my mind. There I met an intelligent, proud and professional soldier, alongside whom I would have been proud to serve. Several prison guards told me as I left that Sergeant Blackman’s incarceration was hard to comprehend. “He shouldn’t be here”, they said.
As for Sergeant Blackman, understandably he feels betrayed—a scapegoat, hung out to dry by the military and political establishments. He was fighting a war at our behest and on our behalf. He believes that his small patrol was given an impossible mission with little support or command structure. They were undermanned and overstretched, the impossible was demanded and a decent man was pushed beyond endurance. In his words, it was a
“lack of self-control, momentary lapse in…judgement.”
The aim of today’s debate is to highlight a miscarriage of justice. The debate will send an important message to those charged with administering justice to Sergeant Blackman and it mirrors the public outcry. Sergeant Blackman is the first British serviceman to be tried for murder by a court martial since the second world war, and I hope he is the last. War is a dirty, filthy, horrible, frightening business and every man— even the very best —has his breaking point.
I am indebted to the highly respected author Frederick Forsyth for his immense help and his interest in the case; to Jonathan Goldberg QC and his team, who are now representing Sergeant Blackman and are in the Public Gallery today, as I said; to the Daily Mail—which I do not often praise—for running such a well-researched campaign and for going to such incredible lengths to support Sergeant Blackman and his case; to Sir Tim Rice and Major General Johnny Holmes, both highly distinguished in their own fields, who have volunteered as directors of a fund-raising effort; and of course to the public for their support and their donations, which have now reached about £120,000 in five days. In addition, there have been thousands of letters; the Daily Mail is having to employ a team to open them.
I conclude with two observations: one concerns the court-martial panel and the other is entirely my own. When Sergeant Blackman was sentenced for murder—murder—dismissed from the Royal Marines and ordered to march out of the court, he gave his final salute in uniform. The panel, to a man, returned his salute—an act that is, as far as I know, unprecedented, especially given that they had just condemned him for murder. To me, that act speaks eloquently of their deep feelings of ambiguity.
I end finally with my own thoughts, having been involved with the case for nearly a year. Sergeant Blackman was and is no cold-blooded killer. He was just a man pushed to the very edge and sent to do a filthy job with his hands tied behind his back, and he is now no threat at all to anyone. He is paying a terrible price for a lapse of judgment. He is a man who deserves another hearing and should be allowed to go home to his wife.
It is an honour and a privilege to take part in this vital debate. I commend the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) for giving us all the chance to participate and to hear at first hand his presentation in Westminster Hall today. I spoke to him last week to get some ideas and I asked whether the story would appear in the Daily Mail. He said, “I am not sure about that”—he knew of course, but he was preparing for the story to break.
This debate, arguably more than any other, is of the utmost importance as it comes at a time when a man’s fight for justice hangs in the balance. I am in the Chamber to participate both as the Member of Parliament for Strangford and as someone who is honoured to have served Queen and country in my time: as a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment and a Territorial Army soldier in the Royal Artillery for some 14 and a half years. I am here along with many other hon. and gallant Members.
Perhaps the case strikes such a chord with me because of my background, although it might simply be because justice was not done. That would explain why the case has caused such a public outcry, with more than 100,000 people calling for Sergeant Blackman’s conviction to be quashed. We in Britain pride ourselves on ensuring that justice prevails, but in this case I am afraid that it has not been done.
For the first time in history, a British serviceman has been convicted of murder. Given the injustices surrounding the court case, I am not surprised that the Daily Mail dubbed Sergeant Blackman a “political scapegoat”—well done to the Daily Mail for highlighting the case and giving us the chance to find out more about the background. What I find most shocking is that vital evidence was withheld and that a colonel who was blocked from telling the truth to the court martial was so disgusted that he resigned his commission.
Forgive me for a rather long quote, but it is important that it goes on the record. It needs to be heard in its entirety, because it is undoubtedly one of the most damning remarks made about the case. On his resignation, Colonel Lee said:
“Sgt Blackman’s investigation, court martial and sentencing authority remain unaware to this day of the wider context within which he was being commanded when he acted as he did.
My attempts to bring proper transparency to this process were denied by the chain of command. Sgt Blackman was therefore sentenced by an authority blind to facts that offered serious mitigation on his behalf”—
that is the thrust of the contribution of the hon. Member for South Dorset.
“The cause of this is a failure of moral courage by the chain of command.”
That is the quotation.
Given the evidence that has come to light and the failure to provide original evidence that might have resulted in a lesser charge of manslaughter, which was “deliberately withheld”, I see no reason why the case cannot be reviewed by the courts-martial appeal court. What has happened simply would not happen in any other case, particularly not in the British justice system that we regard so highly. For a British serviceman and acting colour sergeant in the Royal Marines, deemed to be a man of “impeccable moral courage”, to have been treated in such a way and to have been served with such injustice is downright wrong and completely and utterly unacceptable.
Sergeant Blackman was a man prepared to lay down his life for his country, who saw two of his comrades blown up, saw another comrade tortured and murdered, and saw another’s severed limbs hung from a tree by the Taliban. That was the daily hell that Sergeant Blackman faced. He had to keep it together for the men he led, just as now he keeps it together for the sake of his wife. He did all that in the face of post-traumatic stress disorder, another factor that might have significantly impaired his judgment on that fateful day. Now, this man has been let down by the country he fought so courageously for. I understand that the members of the panel that decided Sergeant Blackman’s fate were not informed of facts that could have helped to reduce his sentence.
This whole situation has come about because of a great failing in the justice system and in the court martial, as well as the failings of those in command who left Sergeant Blackman’s troop isolated, without enough manpower, under-resourced and sustaining a daily onslaught from the Taliban. Those failings were not Sergeant Blackman’s fault, but he had to deal with the situation regardless. It is no wonder that we have found out that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly as he was the one who had to lead a troop of men. He has said—I quote from the Library information pack:
“I had been sent to a brutal battlefield to fight for my country in an unpopular war.”
Given where he was and what he was doing, he was very clearly under physical and emotional pressure. He had no choice but to keep it together as best he could.
It is important to note that the man killed was one of two Taliban fighters sneaking up on a British outpost called Taalanda. Those two men had only one purpose: to kill the British troops at the outpost. An Apache crew was assembled and 139 rounds were fired from a 30 mm cannon; unsurprisingly, the crew did not think it possible that anyone had survived. Upon finding the casualty, it was noted that he had been fatally wounded and was unconscious, although at that point he had not passed away.
Sergeant Blackman knows that what he did was wrong. He claims that the remark he made about the Geneva Convention was in relation to the mistreatment of the corpse, something he knows he should not have done. However, the pressures that he was facing, frequently caused by the poor judgment of senior command, and the daily bloodshed that he witnessed while struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder are valid reasons why, in a moment’s lack of judgment, something like that can occur. It saddens me that someone as highly thought of and well-respected as Sergeant Blackman, can, because of one split-second mistake, be dismissed and treated with such disdain and disrespect.
I fully support the e-petition, with over 100,000 signatures, calling for Sergeant Blackman’s conviction to be quashed. When I read about Big Al, as he was known to friends and family, it saddened me to learn that the 6 foot 3 inch giant had grown gaunt during his time in prison—it has obviously had an effect. It is little wonder, particularly as I am sure that Sergeant Blackman never in a million years expected to be serving a life sentence after serving his country with determination, bravery and dedication. His case needs to be referred urgently to the court martial appeals court, so that this shameful injustice can be fully investigated—this time, with all the available evidence and statements.
I reiterate the comments of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and commend my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing this debate and on all the research he has done for his eloquent speech.
I am speaking today in support of my constituent Claire Warner, who is the wife of Sergeant Alexander Blackman—Al, as he is known to her—and in support of her parents. Claire is here today. She lives in the heart of the constituency of Taunton Deane, for which I have the great privilege of being MP. Claire and her family have been through unimaginable anguish and strain over the last two years since all this happened. They are deeply private people who have kept themselves very much to themselves, even in the heart of Taunton Deane. But now it is time to speak out, and so they are; that is why we are here today. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset is speaking out, as well—even the Daily Mail is—so I am now going to do so and add the weight of my argument to the case.
Taunton is a commando town. There is enormous public support for our brave and dedicated marines there. Locally, one senses a profound feeling that those defending our peace, protecting our world from evil and giving devoted service to their country must themselves be treated with the fairness and understanding that are due to them. That must always happen within the framework of the law.
We have heard much today about new evidence coming to light, allegedly suggesting that there has been a miscarriage of justice in Sergeant Blackman’s case—indeed, that he has been made something of a scapegoat. I therefore support the call for a review of the case, including that new evidence. That review should also consider the three routes to manslaughter, the stress that Sergeant Blackman was under and all available psychological reports.
I have been following the eloquent speeches that have been made about this very concerning case. I am here to represent Dr Melody Blackman, my constituent in Eastleigh and the younger sister of Al. She exactly echoes my hon. Friend’s points about the need for a fair hearing of all the evidence, to make sure that we get the right decision and that any and all decisions made are based on a fair hearing and a fair trial. We expect that fairness in every walk of life.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. That comes over so clearly from everyone I speak to, from the local support we have had, and from all the people writing to the Daily Mail. I think the Mail has about 2,500 letters, as well as money for the legal case, and all of the thousands of people who have contacted it have spoken up for fairness, as we are doing today.
I offer a small note of caution. We must take care when criticising our court martial system, as it is there for a reason. However, having spoken to a whole range of sources, in this brief speech I call for the case to be reviewed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, with all that that entails, including, of course, the power to send the case back to the Court of Appeal.
Let us give this case the breath of fresh air it deserves, and give Sergeant Blackman a fair hearing. Ultimately, let us hope that we can give Claire her husband back at home.
I did not intend to speak today—I am here on behalf of constituents who asked me to attend—but, listening to the debate, it has struck me that there is something relevant that needs to be raised, namely how, as a public, we regard our armed forces, who are doing jobs that, to be blunt, none of us who have not been there would even want to imagine.
Miscarriages of justice can take place in all walks of life, whether civilian or military. It is right not to want to undermine a court martial. However, we would readily recognise that in a civilian court the process of justice is not always followed as it should be, so I do not see that it undermines the court martial process to say that a case should be looked at again.
When I joined the Royal Navy as an engineering officer, one thing I was convinced of was that I could not be a Royal Marine. It is a unique service—[Interruption.] It was certainly not one that appealed to me. The training that takes place and the jobs that marines are asked to do are of a degree of extremity beyond that which is asked of the regular forces. The problem in this case is that the courts have overlooked—I pay tribute to the Daily Mail for bringing this to public attention—the extreme pressures that these brave men are under when we, as politicians, order them to go and do what we have decided, on our whim.
I have said in the House before that war is the failure of politicians. It is nothing else. Every war in history, ultimately, was started by a politician, whether they were elected or not. We need to rebuild respect for those who stand up for what we believe in, for justice and security, and for the love of their country. It worries me that, in this building today, mainstream politicians are saying that terrorist organisations had a point and that we should somehow be critical of the armed forces that stood up to them.
Yes, mistakes can be made in courts of law, and it is right to review that, but let the message go out clearly that, along with the British people and the newspapers of this country, Members of this Parliament—on the whole—wholeheartedly recognise the dedication, honesty, bravery and selflessness shown day in, day out, even away from the combat field, by the brave people who stand up and do the job we send them to do.
My congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing the debate and on all the work he has done on this important issue. I speak as a former soldier, but also as the Member of Parliament for Sergeant Blackman’s parents-in-law, who sought my support when I was a candidate in the election and who continue to seek it.
The first thing I want to put on record is an apology for not speaking publicly on this matter before. In offering that apology, and in explaining why I feel ashamed at not having spoken out properly, I hope to shed some light on why so many in the military—those currently serving and those recently retired, particularly those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan—will feel so reluctant to speak out on this case.
We all go through the same pre-deployment training; we all get taught the rules of engagement. We all know how strong we would want to be when we face danger day in, day out over a six-month tour. We would all like to believe that we have in ourselves the self-control and restraint to remember every letter of that pre-deployment training when we face horrendous, extraordinary situations.
The reason so many of us have come home having acted like that is that we were surrounded by a chain of command and a regiment, whose members were watching our backs on the battlefield—continuing to fire as we moved forward, and continuing to fire as we replaced the magazine on our rifle. They were also watching our backs mentally and psychologically so that, when we got back from a patrol—after an explosion or after a firefight—we were talking to one another, with each of us understanding the pressures the other was under.
The reality is that there is a loneliness in command. From everything I have read, I have no doubt Sergeant Blackman was an extraordinary junior commander who had the welfare of his troops completely at heart. I know from the fact that some of his men are here today—standing up for him silently—that they would have followed him to the ends of the earth.
Again, I am speaking as an ex-commanding officer, albeit not in the Royal Marine commandos, or the Guards, but if this incident had not happened, this sergeant, in command of a small group—15 men—in such a situation for such a long period, would definitely be on the list for a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross.
I thank my hon. Friend.
The reality is that when someone is in a junior command position in an isolated patrol base, there is a responsibility on them to be unbreakable. They do not stint; they do not even take half a step backwards. They walk forwards because that is the only thing their men will follow.
To give junior commanders confidence and strength, and to watch out for their welfare, it is incumbent on those in the chain of command to get around, to visit, to watch, to take people to one side to see how they are and, if they do need a few days out of the line, to invent a reason to get them back down to Camp Bastion so that they can recuperate and get back to the line rejuvenated and with the moral strength they need to lead.
In Sangin, in 2009, my battlegroup was on the very front line—we were taking the highest casualties that had been taken in Afghanistan up until that point. However, I remember only too well that, when there was an incident in an isolated patrol base, the commanding officer and the regimental sergeant-major would be on the first available helicopter up there; if they could not get a helicopter, they would be on the back of the first available patrol. They had a responsibility to get to those patrol bases, not because they wanted to be seen by the riflemen, but because they knew that if the platoon commander and the platoon sergeant were doing everything they had been trained to do, they would be looking out for their soldiers, but nobody in that patrol base would be looking out for them.
And it went on. When an event shook our entire battlegroup, the brigade commander appeared on the first available helicopter from Lashkar Gah. The reason we were able to come back knowing that we had done right and that we had not once crossed the line was that there were people all the way up the chain of the command watching out for us to make sure that we remained strong and resupplied, but also that we were being looked after.
There is a lack of understanding and empathy about what we ask our troops to do, and there are people in this room who have experienced that in the raw. The reality is that operations in Afghanistan over the last five, six or seven years have not been about conventional firefights between two uniformed enemies who stand and shoot at each until one side gives up. This is about a callous, cowardly enemy who uses the cover of night to lay improvised explosive devices with no metal content whatever so that our metal detectors cannot find them. We then ask young men—18-year-olds—and their junior commanders, such as Sergeant Blackman, to step out into the dark of the Helmand night and to walk until somebody has their legs blown off.
That situation is truly extraordinary, yet when this man’s will was broken, when he had taken too much and when his chain of command had let him down, leaving him in the line to continue leading patrols when he had clearly seen too much, we allow him to come home, and we judge those extraordinary circumstances—the extraordinary danger he faced in that extraordinary place—in an ordinary court, with ordinary law, where people are intent on viewing what happened in an entirely ordinary way.
Helmand was a murderous place—a place where the enemy never had the courage to be seen. It was down to the Apaches, with their thermal imaging, to take out those IED crews overnight, because infantry soldiers would never see them by day. They were happy to sit in their compounds and to wait for the explosion, taking satisfaction from another life ruined. They would lay IEDs about 3 feet from the one they thought would get the first casualty. Why would they do that? Because they would then get the front two people on the stretcher party taking the first casualty to the helicopter landing site to get him away to Bastion. This is an enemy who did not play by the rules. This is an enemy that tried your physical and mental strength every single day.
Sergeant Blackman snapped—I believe that is what happened—because he was not looked after by his chain of command. When we brought him home, we tried him in an ordinary court, and we failed to recognise that that extraordinary man deserved the benefit of having those extraordinary circumstances taken into account.
I have huge respect for my hon. Friend, who has experienced things I have never experienced. He has said twice that this was an ordinary court, where the case was tried in an ordinary way, but it was not. This man was tried by a military court. As I understand it, it did not even reach a unanimous verdict. If it had been an ordinary court, where the case was tried in an ordinary way by twelve good men and true, I do not believe this man would ever have been found guilty. It was not an ordinary court; it was a rigged court.
I had concluded, but it is quite right that I put on record that I was referring to an ordinary court martial.
A general court martial.
But, none the less, an ordinary process. I just think that there is a lack of awareness of the extraordinary pressures this man was under. If the case goes to the Court of Appeal, or if, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) suggested, it is allowed to be judged by 12 members of the public, an entirely different conclusion will be reached. The problem is that Sergeant Blackman has already been in prison. We have already let him down, and that is unforgiveable.
I have been asked a few times for my views on the case, for a variety of reasons, and I have not offered them, but as it is yet again in Parliament and I am now, fortunately, a Member, I will use the opportunity to set out my view.
To give some context, I never achieved anything particularly great in the Army, but I have a unique viewpoint. I served three tours from the beginning of the Afghanistan conflict. I served in the chaos that was 2006, when we first went there; and at the strategic level in 2008 and 2009, with a unit that was involved in the strategic man-hunting outside of Task Force Helmand. I then served in 2010 in exactly the same area where the individual we are talking about served. At the end of that tour, my CO told me I was probably the most combat-experienced terminal controller in the Army at the time; so I have an intimate understanding of the issues at stake in the case.
I served in the exact same area as Marine A just 12 months before him, during a final tour of duty in southern Afghanistan. The area was renowned as one of the most contested in Helmand. In January 2010, the Americans had completed a huge operation in Marjeh to the south, which was complemented by a British effort called Operation Panther’s Claw to squeeze the heavily enemy-occupied areas around Nad-e Ali and the district centre in that area. All operations have unintended consequences, and the main one on this occasion was that the heavily armed and well organised Taliban commanders—what we would call tier 1 and tier 2 Taliban commanders—had been squeezed into an area just north of Nad-e Ali just south of the main Nahr-e Bughra canal; so they were fixed geographically in that area. The area is known on the map as 31 west; to the rest of us it became known as the jungle.
The area that I and subsequently Marine A served in was so demanding that, half way through that last tour, the holding ground unit that I was supporting was replaced by the theatre reserve battalion. My small fire support team, with one already dead, was asked to stay and be the continuity—the corporate knowledge, if you like—for that area of operations. The truth is that at that time, and no doubt a year later when Marine A was there—I shall call him that throughout my speech, because I do not believe that he should have been publicly named—the area was the darkest place in Helmand. That title switched areas as the campaign wore on. At times it belonged to Sangin, at others to Musa Qala. As I have said, I served in multiple areas on multiple tours, with different forces from strategic down to tactical level, and I have no doubt that it was the most demanding place I served in.
I found life a challenge when I came home from that tour. As ever, I made sure I could look my wife and daughter in the eye. No one died who did not need to die; but it was perhaps the most formative experience of my life. I suspect that for Marine A the experience was broadly similar. I would at this stage like to make an important point clear. I am no apologist for Marine A. I have been in his position, as have many others, but we have not broken the law and stepped over the abyss as he did. I also do not think it is for politicians to interfere with the judicial process, and I respect the opinion that has been given; but there are some serious problems with the case that I am deeply uncomfortable with, and I feel I have a duty to speak out about them.
One of my driving forces for coming into Parliament was how we look after our people within the military whom we ask and expect to keep us safe—although often we do not want to know how they do it. There is no doubt that the past 10 years have had a chronic effect on a generation of young men and women. There is also no doubt of the desensitising process that occurs when one is engaged with the enemy on a daily basis. It is how people cope and get by—morphing from human to animal and back again, as they learn to fight, live and survive like an animal in the backstreets of “the jungle”. Taking another man’s life is a serious and sobering engagement; extreme violence is to be expected, but as humans we adapt and cope, and as British soldiers we do what needs to be done to survive and win.
None of that trumps professionalism in the conduct of one’s duty. I give no traction to the views of those who say, “Marine A did what any one of us would have done,” or even, “He only did what they would do to him, given the opportunity.” I am afraid they entirely miss the point and do not help his case. However, we must never take the collective faults of a system or policy generated by the demands placed on our men, and hang them around the neck of one individual, as has happened in this case. During the maturing process of the Afghanistan campaign, there were some epic failures in the chain of command. “Courageous restraint” was a great concept, which most of us employed anyway before they gave it a fancy name; but that did not stop the commander of British forces in 2010 suggesting that summer that we start giving state awards for those who showed “courageous restraint”. I think the Americans are still laughing at us now.
A strange culture developed around the conflict at that time. Commanders wanted to “do” Afghanistan—to get it on their annual reports. As ever, most new officers in theatre would start trying to outdo their predecessors. We started to be asked to follow up direct action strikes from the air, which meant conducting a ground patrol to check for collateral damage on a target just after it was hit, which is insanity, considering where those targets are in enemy territory, and the IED risk—notwithstanding the fact that the effects of strikes are pretty obvious straightaway. The effect of that on our blokes was that every single step they took and every single round they fired was raked over time and again, under microscopic scrutiny with potential strategic effects. The pressure that that placed on men engaged in mortal combat was never correctly assessed or accounted for by the chain of command, or in the court case of Marine A. That pressure has never been higher in the history of armed conflict. There is a reason why Marine A is the first man to be convicted for the crime in question since the second world war. The effects of the strategic corporal, as it became known, have never been correctly assessed, and due care and attention have not been paid to the problem.
Into that arena stepped a deeply scarred man, of whom we had asked more and more as a nation, without respite. He had conducted multiple combat tours, yet those who thought they knew better down the other end of the radio did not heed his assessments of the specific threat to his patrol base in his area of operations. He had already lost his officer; he had seen body parts displayed and had been involved in the hunt for Highlander McLaren, which ended in such bad circumstances that to this day they rightly remain unreported.
My point is that someone should have seen what was coming. Marine A made a mistake and he got caught, and it would be naive to suggest that he should not be punished; but the mitigating circumstances in this case are great. He killed a mortally injured enemy combatant—of that there is no doubt; but does he deserve to be serving an eight-year prison sentence for murder? That is something I am deeply uncomfortable with. To my mind, the situation represents a serious and unfortunately characteristic failure in the chain of command to protect the man at all costs and assume a collective responsibility for a duty of care.
The trauma risk management procedure instigated to try to ameliorate the onslaught of disturbing experiences was a good idea but, again, tokenism prevailed. It was appallingly implemented and administered. I had a conversation only three weeks ago with someone at the top of the Ministry of Defence about how the TRiM procedure is being implemented, and all I can say is that it is delusional, the way assessment is done. We need to get that right. We have no one prepared to take responsibility for a care pathway for our servicemen and women once they leave, and I am determined to implement that.
My hon. Friend’s comments are very powerful. I think most Members of Parliament would be surprised at how many of their constituents are suffering from PTSD to this day.
As to the PTSD system, there is a chronic effect on a generation that we have asked to do our bidding in conflicts miles away. There is often a time lag before the effects kick in, but there still seems to be an idea of putting it aside, and that is simply not good enough. We have to look after our blokes better.
If a civilian commits murder they are entitled to a psychiatric assessment as part of the trial process. Why on earth was that not done in Marine A’s case? That man broke the law. He knew it, and he got caught; but someone must have seen it coming, and there was the point of failure. In this country, we do not look after our blokes well enough, and he is yet another example. We are getting better; the first thing the Prime Minister and Chancellor think of when more LIBOR fines come through is veterans charities. We now have a unique opportunity to get veterans’ care right. The sector needs clearing up, but that is for another day.
We have a justice system that is one of the fairest and most stringent in the world, and I have little doubt that Marine A’s conviction will not stand by the end of this Parliament. He has killed a man when he should not have done, in the heat, intensity, fear and sweat of a modern counter-insurgency campaign; but convicted of murder and sentenced to eight years? I am not comfortable with that, and I suspect I am not in the minority. We must do right by this man. I support efforts to look again at his conviction, and am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today, Mr Pritchard, and I commend the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing this important debate and the passion with which he spoke about Sergeant Blackman.
The case raises issues of serious concern and it should be carefully considered by the Government, Parliament and parliamentarians. I want to consider some of those issues because I have great sympathy for many of the points being raised across the Chamber, although I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern that it is not for parliamentarians to interfere in an individual court case. Therefore I will speak generally, if I can, about some matters that come out of this.
At the heart of the matter for me is the question of culpability. We train our servicemen and women to an extremely high standard, including on how to operate with integrity on the battlefield. Yesterday, in preparing for this debate, I spoke to a friend of mine who used to teach that course to recruits in the Royal Marines. Based on that conversation, my question is: can that training ever be foolproof? Can it ever see every contingency, given the conditions that we expect these troops to operate in and the action they get into with enemy combatants? If not, where does the appropriate level of culpability lie?
When soldiers are ordered to go out on patrol in highly dangerous areas or to risk their lives defending positions, the stress and psychological toll must be draining. Over a sustained period, those factors must surely affect performance and judgement. The psychological toll must be ever greater on those with responsibility for others—those in command on the ground.
To what extent did the pressures on the sergeant have an adverse effect on his mental state when he made the mistake that he made? I am no expert, and I am not privy to every detail of the case—I have not seen the full coverage, as the hon. Gentleman has—but I would like to know that that was taken fully into account by the court martial; there are questions about whether it was.
I hope that the Minister can indicate how we monitor the psychological toll being taken on our servicemen when they are put in these positions. His comments would be welcome; if we are to have confidence in military justice and that our servicemen are treated fairly, it is important that that is taken into account. As has been said by a number of hon. Members, there are questions about the issue.
How do we determine that a serviceman or woman is psychologically fit to be on the battlefield in the first place, and where does responsibility lie when things go wrong? I also have concerns over the accountability of command for incidents such as the one involving the sergeant, particularly in light of the comments, alluded to by others, of Colonel Oliver Lee, which have been widely reported. Although a couple of hon. Members have mentioned them, I will repeat Colonel Lee’s comments because they are important:
“Sgt Blackman was therefore sentenced by an authority blind to facts that offered serious mitigation on his behalf. The cause of this is a failure of moral courage by the chain of command, the burden of which is carried by the man under command.”
For me, that is extremely concerning. I would like to hear a bit more about that, and it needs to be looked into.
I have a further concern about transparency. It seems to me that transparency is essential in any legal framework but that it does not seem to exist here. Without transparency, how can parliamentarians or the public have confidence that the system of military justice is effective and fair? Given the age in which we live, where information is exchanged and shared like at no other time in human history, we must have a transparent military legal system that we can all have confidence in. What are the facts of this case? Do we know them all—if not, why not? What matters did the court martial consider? Crucially, which ones did they not consider in this case and others?
It has been widely reported that the evidence about the context in which our soldiers were serving was not presented at the trial—the lack of equipment, troop numbers and the job being asked of them, for example. We really need to make sure that that is taken into account. It is also my understanding—this point was mentioned earlier by the hon. Gentleman—that this case is being reviewed, but that there is a reluctance to release the report to the public. In the interests of transparency, I hope that that can be done. I hope that there are no redactions so that we can judge for ourselves on the basis of full information. It is not for me to say whether such evidence would have changed the verdict in the particular case; that is a matter for others. However, I think clarification should be provided on what was considered by the court martial and what was not.
As I said at the beginning, I think there is a case for reviewing the law as regards the prosecution of such crimes. We have to look into that, and I think we have an opportunity to next year. In particular, there is the degree to which culpability rests with individual servicemen and women who are expected to act under orders in extremely difficult and dangerous theatres and under restrictions through rules of engagement.
Forgive me, but I think the law is clear. Servicemen and women have a duty and a right to kill the enemy, until that enemy comes under their control—de facto, a prisoner. Once the enemy is under control, they have a responsibility to care for that person. In this case, clearly, Marine A did wrong by killing, or assuming he was killing, someone. That is against the law of armed conflict and the Geneva convention. It is quite clear.
What seems to be wrong, having listened very carefully to my hon. Friends and colleagues explain, is that the defence did not defend properly and the judge advocate general in a court martial did not give options to the board. They gave one option: murder—sorry, Mr Pritchard, I do not mean to be making a speech. Murder was one option; manslaughter was another, and at the very least should be considered by the military authorities to sort this out. That should be done with a new legal team, which has a responsibility to go straight back to the military authorities and say, “This is wrong. Sort it, please.”
I do not necessarily disagree with that, but I did say at the beginning that I was going to try to speak generally, rather than on an individual case, if and when I could, to make my points.
In conclusion, very important points come out of this case. I have a great deal of sympathy with regard to the individual case, but I think Parliament should be considering how we deal with incidents such as this when we put our troops in harm’s way.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) for bringing this debate to the House and to all the hon. Members who have contributed to it. Their contributions have been extremely moving, particularly those based on personal experience, and I do not think we can fail to accept the genuine emotion that this has brought forward and the feelings of all who have served.
I place on record, from the Opposition side of the House, our support for our troops. They operate in places and deal with situations that mere civilians can have no concept of. They face danger and make decisions, often in a split second every day, that literally have life or death consequences, and, on top of that, they agree to maintain an extraordinarily high standard of conduct in those circumstances. I would like to record my personal gratitude and admiration for the armed forces community and their service to our nation.
Sergeant Alexander Blackman risked his life for his country in one of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan. He was facing an enemy with scant regard for the conventional rules of conflict and, as we have heard, his record was exemplary. Indeed, he was recommended for promotion until he made one tragic error of judgment and shot a captive prisoner. That mistake had far-reaching consequences for everyone involved, including his family, and the families of those who serve their country, and the sacrifices they make, are too often forgotten. He was, as we have heard, court-martialled and found guilty of murder in 2013. In 2014, his appeal was rejected but the judge reduced the minimum term stating that the court martial had not taken his combat stress sufficiently into account.
I obviously have no wish to jeopardise the chain of command or operational effectiveness and, as we have heard from someone who has served, it is not for politicians to interfere in internal military matters, but I have some questions and requests for the Minister.
First, I request that the Ministry of Defence publish all the information, including the review of the run-up to the killing in 2011. We need to know about the situation on the ground and the training and, crucially, we need to have the assessment of the culture and the support that was given to this soldier. That, I believe, has been promised, but I am pressing for it to be released as early as possible. It is essential, because without it there will always be unanswered questions. For the sake of transparency, as well as for the individual and his family, the documents should be available so that we can try to find the answers.
Secondly, if there is judged to be new evidence that was not presented or that was presented too late or options that were not put forward, can that be considered further by whichever means is appropriate? We owe it to everyone involved to ensure that justice has been done.
This is a difficult and emotive subject for us all. We ask a tremendous amount of our armed forces, including that they operate to an extremely high standard of values and principles in incredibly difficult and challenging circumstances. When they are found not to have lived up to that, we owe it to all to ensure that the highest standards are applied to our justice system and that, wherever possible, transparency is a watchword.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I start, of course, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing this debate on an emotive case that has continued to be of concern to many people. I also congratulate, on their passionate contributions, my hon. Friends the Members for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), for Wells (James Heappey) and for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Stirling (Steven Paterson) and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue).
Standing here now and having listened to the debate, I am remembering that it is nine years since I served in Afghanistan, in the summer of 2006. I listened to the contributions of some of my hon. Friends, but frankly my tour was quite unremarkable. It bore no significance compared with the experiences of the Royal Marines in Afghanistan, in Helmand, and I seek to make absolutely no comparison between my experiences and theirs. I am, however, very mindful, when I think of that time, of just how far away we are today in the House of Commons from Helmand all those years ago. I am very mindful of that.
In the days before this debate, I spent considerable time considering this case. I have read in detail the full internal review and have seen the headcam tapes presented at trial. As part of my wish for transparency, I arranged court permission and offered my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) the opportunity to see the full unredacted footage alongside me this morning, in my desire to understand the wider issues. I have discussed the case and appeal with a number of military officers, including both commanding officers. I share the concern of many for Mrs Blackman and am clear that the MOD must not stand in the way of a fair and just consideration of this case. I am, however, equally clear that no serviceman or woman of our armed forces is or can be above the law.
This case has been difficult for everyone connected to it. No one can see the clear pain of Mrs Blackman as she seeks to support her husband and not be deeply moved. Equally, we are all conscious that we cannot fully appreciate from the safety of the House the challenges of operations in extraordinary and dangerous circumstances, and these are extraordinary challenging circumstances, with extraordinary people doing an extraordinary job. I know that the House will join me in recognising the Royal Marines for their huge contribution in Afghanistan during many gruelling operational tours. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] We are justly proud of our soldiers, sailors and airmen—of the work they do and the way they conduct themselves. We hold our armed forces to a higher standard, and we are right to do that. Our men and women must be better than those they confront; they must set a higher standard and, even when provoked, must hold to their professional standards. Our Royal Marines fight hard, but they fight fair.
We as Members of Parliament and I as the Minister responsible for service personnel have a special duty to these people and their families. It is right that we have undertaken the review to learn the lessons from this incident, and I recognise the public interest in seeing the report in full, but I must weigh that against being fair to individuals named in the case. For that reason, I have agreed to the release of the executive summary, recommendations and letter from the Fleet Commander, with the only redactions being individuals’ telephone numbers and a relatively junior civil servant’s name. I have also withheld the bullet points that relate to an individual who has not yet been named in the media. Simply due to the shortness of time between the announcement of this debate last week and today, I have been unable to follow the full process required under the Data Protection Act, but let me make it clear that it is my intention to unredact those paragraphs as well in due course.
I have, as I said, read the full report in detail. It is a full and frank assessment and contains detailed information about our tactics and operational security. It is my view that its unredacted release into the public domain would breach our ability to conduct campaigns in the future. However, as hon. Members will have seen from the 17 recommendations released today, the Royal Navy, alongside the other services, is pursuing detailed implementation plans, many of which are already well advanced. I have spoken today to the Fleet Commander, and he assures me that he is tracking and pressing progress and this is a matter treated with the utmost seriousness.
That said, I remain convinced that transparency is the key in this case and I am keen to provide it. Therefore, if Sergeant Blackman’s defence team wished this report to be considered by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, the MOD would provide them with a confidential copy.
I hope that this release quashes the claims that the MOD is trying to undertake some sort of cover-up or conspiracy in this case; that is simply not the case. With regard to the legal case itself, Sergeant Blackman and two marines under his command were charged with and prosecuted for murder. They were tried in an independent and impartial judicial process. Guilt or innocence is decided by a panel made up of military personnel who understand the unique challenges that our service personnel face. The two marines were acquitted, but Sergeant Blackman was convicted. A great deal of evidence was heard in the trial of the immense stresses and strains of the operational context. Sergeant Blackman’s company commander during the time of his deployment gave evidence at the trial. He outlined the tactical situation and difficulties faced by troops located in patrol bases. I do not think that those personnel underestimated the immense challenges that Sergeant Blackman, and so many of our people, faced during that time.
We can say that somebody is in the military, but that is clearly a very broad church. What steps were taken to ensure that the individuals who were passing judgment on this soldier had relevant personal experience of the pressures that that individual was placed under at the time?
My hon. Friend tempts me into getting into the details of the preparation for the particular court martial. Of course, he will understand that it is right that, as Ministers and Members of Parliament, we do not seek to start influencing the way in which these trials are conducted. I do not know what the process was. There would have been a balance, of course. Anybody who knew Sergeant Blackman probably could not sit in judgment against him. However, my hon. Friend will forgive me if I avoid being drawn into those sorts of detail, because I do think that would be inappropriate for someone in my position.
Sergeant Blackman appealed against his conviction and sentence to the court martial appeal court. It is important to note, given the concerns that some have expressed about the court-martial process, that that court is made up of the same judges as sit in the civilian Court of Appeal. The court martial appeal court, chaired in this case by the Lord Chief Justice, upheld the conviction and the sentence. However, it reduced the minimum term, as has been said, from 10 years to eight.
I understand that Sergeant Blackman and his legal advisers are considering whether, as their next step, there is any new evidence that they would wish to put to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, with a view to its being referred to the court martial appeal court. This is a legal matter and not a decision for Ministers, but let me reiterate: should that happen and should either the commission or Sergeant Blackman’s legal representatives make a request for the review or elements of it, I reassure hon. Members that the Ministry of Defence will, of course, co-operate fully to ensure that justice is done. To be perfectly clear, I mean that I would be willing to release the report in full, on a confidential basis, to either the defence legal team or the commission.
I began by saying that I was fully aware of the concern felt by many regarding the case. I recognise and accept that it remains difficult for some to accept the decision of the court martial and the court martial appeal court. The system seeks to combine independence and legal professionalism with an appreciation of the military context and the realities of military life. The civilian judge advocate gives direction on the law, and military personnel decide on guilt or innocence. It should not be forgotten that in this case they acquitted two of the accused. Where there is a conviction, they decide with the judge advocate on the sentence. An appeal can be made to the highest and most experienced judges, and there is the possibility of further review if important new evidence emerges. This is, rightly, an independent judicial process, not a political decision. I respect the system, and hope that hon. Members will do so as well.
I am most grateful to the Minister for the hard work that I know he has put into researching the case, and for his frank response, which was not expected. The new legal team and the family will be grateful for the fact that he has offered to give the report to the defence team if they request it in confidence. That will help enormously. I also pay tribute to all my honourable and, in many cases, gallant colleagues. The Minister speaks humbly about his time in Afghanistan. He may not have faced the same challenges as others, but he was still there, and for that I commend him most highly.
This has been, as colleagues have said, a highly emotional, charged debate. That will not get Sergeant Blackman out of jail, however, nor will it get his case reviewed. What will are the facts. As the Minister and others have rightly said, we cannot and should not interfere with the legal process. My job and ours, along with the Daily Mail and others, is to highlight where we think that things have gone wrong. Where we see an injustice, it would be wrong not to stand up and say what we think. That is what we were voted in to do, and that is what we have done today.
I hope that the attention that the case is receiving, and the facts of the case, will get it reviewed. Regrettably, I am not as eminent, as bright, as intelligent or as experienced as Mr Goldberg, and sadly I never will be, but it is into his hands and those of his team that we place the responsibility of pursuing that legal avenue. Big Al, as he is affectionately known, and I have met him—
I just wanted to build on that point and clarify what I said earlier about the MOD. I thank the Minister for the candid nature of his speech. He has shown us that we have a real opportunity, with the team of Ministers at the MOD, not only to get this case right but to tackle the causes of what happened. We all know the facts, but there are causes behind the story. We have a unique opportunity now, before the matter moves out of the public eye, to get those things right.
I know that this is strong, but in my experience of dealing with Ministers and those at the top of the MOD, there is a significant gap between the duty, attention to detail and the genuine heartfelt concerns of the ministerial team and the attitude of those at the top of the MOD. The latter have recently, in conversations about trauma risk management and how we manage people going forward, shown themselves to be delusional. We need to tighten that gap to make sure that we do not miss the bow wave of people coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq and suffering from mental health problems. I hope that as a result of our debate today, we will be able to see the many factors that contributed to the incident that we are discussing.
I thank my gallant and distinguished colleague. Given all his experience, there is, dare I say it, no one better on our side of the House to speak in such a way.
Aside from the points about this case, do hon. and gallant Members agree that it remains extremely important that our soldiers behave with the highest possible standards, and that we do not abuse or execute prisoners of war?
I entirely concur with that, and I am sure that everyone in the room would do the same. We have to set a bar, and the bar has been set. There are occasions, however, and sadly this is one, where, for all kinds of mitigating reasons, one man—a highly professional soldier—snaps for a single moment. On the emotional side of the argument, very few of us here, except for the truly gallant Members who have served in Afghanistan, fully understand the pressures that these young men, and of course the officers and those in command, are put under.
I will end shortly, because I know that the Chair would like to have the final say, which is only right. I believe, as do a sufficiently large number of people, that there has been a miscarriage of justice, albeit not an intentional one. It is not for me to say otherwise, because we are talking about a court martial that did its job. The facts as I understand them were not fully presented to the court martial, however. If a court martial is to convict fairly, it needs all the facts, and I believe that they were not fully present on that day.
We hope that all the attention that this case has rightly been given will get it back to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. We rely entirely on Mr Goldberg to achieve that, and the matter is in his safe and secure hands. My aim is to bring Big Al home. If we can get the case heard, that is the first step. The rest, as has been said, is up to the law and the lawmakers.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the case of Sgt Alexander Blackman (Marine A).