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12.43 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Dr. John Reid): First, I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) for my late arrival for the debate. It was unavoidable. The hon. Gentleman may wish to know that I travelled here by car with Ambassador Butler of UNSCOM--the United Nations Special Commission--to try to fit in my arrival with the time of the debate.

As a preliminary, may I tell the hon. Member that the whole House admires the way in which he worked, risked his life and showed such courage in reporting the war in Bosnia? He showed great personal courage in some dangerous situations and reported what he saw with passion and with compassion, but always with integrity and objectivity, too. Whenever he raises any matter in the House, we listen to him with great respect. In my view, the hon. Gentleman displayed deep compassion for all sides of the dispute in Bosnia and for all the peoples of that troubled land, whether Bosniac, Croat or Serb.

However, today it is not the war in Bosnia or the prospects for peace that the hon. Gentleman has chosen to raise. He knows that, because of the position that I hold, I rise to respond to him under restrictions and restraints of which he is well aware. I am restricted and restrained in how I can respond to the points that he has made--although I can say that the whole House will have heard what he said. I shall seek to respond to those points that do not fall properly within the process of judicial inquiry and operations.

The hon. Gentleman has made a judgment in deciding to raise the matter today. I am sure that he did so after careful thought, and with the conscientiousness that he would normally apply to such questions. He will know that in speaking about the case of Major Stankovic he will inevitably have given that case publicity. He will also know that it has already featured in detail in an article in the Daily Mail on Monday. Some of the points that he had previously made in private and has made again today were also expressed in that article.

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Therefore, inevitably, publicity will surround the case. The hon. Gentleman will have made a judgment about that before embarking on his course of action. I have no means of knowing either what informed that judgment, or Major Stankovic's view of the publicity that his case will now receive, and whether he may believe that it will be helpful or otherwise to his own position.

For my part, in case there is any doubt on the subject, I wish to place on the record the fact that my Department has sought no publicity whatever for the case. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that we in the Ministry of Defence have been scrupulous in doing everything in our power to avoid publicity, which could cause unnecessary distress to Major Stankovic, and could risk prejudicing subsequent proceedings, or his defence if--I repeat "if"--he were to be charged.

Indeed, hitherto my Department has not even acknowledged the name of Major Stankovic or given it to the press. Whatever speculation may have arisen in that regard, it did not arise in any authorised fashion or, I hope, from any element in my Department.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): From the public prints, are not we entitled to ask whether the role of the military police will be seriously looked at, as that certainly is within the purview of the Minister's Department?

Dr. Reid: My hon. Friend is entitled to ask anything he likes, but I am more constrained in how I can reply. If he asks whether, in due course, consideration will be given to the MOD police, that subject--particularly during the strategic defence review--could be examined. If he is implying that I should somehow intervene in the investigation, that course is not open to me, and it would be unwise. That is precisely why I am being as constrained as I am in my remarks.

I would not wish to take any action or make any comment that might in any way influence an investigation that is under way or which ultimately could be perceived in any way to have affected the investigation or even the case for the defence, if charges were brought against Major Stankovic.

Mr. Martin Bell: As time is running out, will the Minister find it in himself to address two points: the protection of the rights of Major Stankovic, and the provision of a serving or ex-serving military officer to help and advise him?

Dr. Reid: I will address those points if the hon. Gentleman bears with me. He has relayed his views to me personally and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has written to the chief constable of the MOD police about the case, as was right and proper, and he has met MOD police officers. He will be able to confirm that my right hon. Friend and I told him that, while we could listen, we could make no comment on the merits of the case or the conduct of the MOD police investigation, for reasons that will be obvious. Ministers do not answer for the operational activities of police forces. The chief constable of the MOD police is responsible for the conduct of the investigation by his force and, in his constabulary capacity, he is independent of the Government under law.

Perhaps it would be helpful to the House if I outlined the processes involved. When the MOD police complete an investigation, they report to the Crown Prosecution

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Service, and careful consideration is given to the question of prosecution. If, having applied the criteria set out in the code for Crown prosecutors, the CPS concludes that proceedings are appropriate, it will make any necessary applications to the Attorney-General for his comments. If the decision is not to prosecute Major Stankovic, standard procedures will be followed by the MOD, including consideration of whether there might be evidence of a military offence having been committed.

It would be understandable if the hon. Member for Tatton or Major Stankovic felt concerned that the process could take some time. I can assure the House and the hon. Gentleman that once the MOD police have completed their investigation--and a decision has been taken on whether Major Stankovic should be prosecuted--and when the matter comes within the realm of my responsibility, my Department will carry out our procedures with fairness and with all possible speed.

I cannot make any prediction of the outcome, any more than I can comment on the merits of the case. The hon. Member understands all that, because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have explained it to him carefully. In any case, he is well aware of the procedures. However, I thought it right to set them out in some detail in case they were not entirely familiar to some hon. Members or to members of the public who may read our reports. I trust that the House will understand why I cannot reply to many of the questions raised by the hon. Gentleman in his speech.

I wish to emphasise that if Major Stankovic is charged with any offence, he will have a full opportunity and plenty of time to prepare his defence. He may wish to refer to some of the matters to which the hon. Member referred. The House will understand how prejudicial it would be to any subsequent procedures, and to Major Stankovic's interests, if I were to say anything at all about the matters today. I ask the hon. Gentleman to give serious thought to those considerations.

One point to which I can refer, because it falls within my responsibilities, is the Army's support for Major Stankovic, which the hon. Gentleman believes is inadequate. I can confirm that Major Stankovic is receiving Army support, as I made inquiries about this matter--and this matter alone--as late as yesterday. He is entitled to the assistance of what is called a soldier's friend. His commanding officer has advised him on that entitlement, and a soldier's friend has been appointed. An individual may choose any Army officer who is not in the chain of command or a potential witness. I am glad that I can assure the hon. Gentleman on that point.

I also assure the hon. Gentleman that if charges are not brought, the matter will be dealt with, so far as our procedures are concerned, in an expeditious and fair

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manner. Other than that, there is very little that I can say that would not be open to misinterpretation as interference in the due process of the investigation.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: I understand the difficulties that the Minister faces in terms of the legalities. The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) raised some procedural matters--for example, the failure to provide an inventory of the personal effects taken from Major Stankovic's home--which the Minister could properly deal with. Any of us who had had items removed from our home would feel, at the very least, that we should have a proper inventory of all that was taken. The hon. Gentleman referred to Major Stankovic's medals, and perhaps the Minister might also be able to address that point. Will he ensure that the MOD police provide an inventory of all items taken from the major's home?

Dr. Reid: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but he will know that the fine distinction that he is able to draw between interfering with the process of an investigation and alleging any irregularities in the procedures of the investigation is one that might not be apparent to every objective observer. On these occasions, it is as well to err on the side of caution so that there is not seen to be any ministerial interference in an independent investigation.

The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) will know that the proceedings of the House will be watched, listened to and read by a number of people, including the chief constable of the MOD police who will, by this afternoon or tomorrow morning, be well aware of the questions that have been asked. He will be aware also, no doubt, that when the procedure is finished, hon. Members such as the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Tatton may wish to return to those questions. Even without my directly intervening in any way, the casual observer might conclude that the matters would be attended to.

I shall ask whether such an important matter as this debate, which is relevant to general police matters, can be brought to the attention of the chief constable of the MOD police. That may suffice to meet the hon. Gentleman's point without direct intervention.

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