Select Committee on Armed Forces Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 940 - 959)

TUESDAY 6 MARCH 2001 (Morning sitting)


  940. In circumstances where someone is not repatriated and they might be, I suppose, in Gibraltar or somewhere else, what would happen then?
  (Mr Miller) Non-repatriation would be very rare. Frankly, and we put this in the note, because over the years one has tended to be a bit cautious about absolute statements, and I can conceive of circumstances in which one would not want to repatriate an individual, it would have to be in circumstances and locations where there were sufficient Naval officers to be able to hold a court, we would have to be able to provide for the defence and so forth. The view in the Navy, certainly, is that while there is a theoretical possibility it is very unlikely to arise with our current deployment pattern.

  941. I suppose there are circumstances where it might be possible to establish a video link which could address the issue.
  (Mr Miller) Yes, the Army is looking at the possibility of video links with overseas. We are not having an altogether easy passage with the legal profession, and I would guess that there are issues of cost involved in that from the point of view of a legal practice.

  942. You may be surprised to hear that I was converted to the use of video links following my difficulties with it in the Armed Forces Discipline Bill last year, and having been in Cyprus with the Committee last week to see the video links in operation and seen the link from Cyprus to Trenchard Lines I was convinced of the virtues of the system. I thought it was quite impressive. I wonder if you could help me with one problem I still have. I have genuinely sought to find a way round it. We were told that it is not possible for a variety of reasons to have video links with the Balkans, with for instance Kosovo or Bosnia, and the answer I got down the video link from Trenchard Lines was that, of course, there are no prison facilities in Kosovo, so anyone in those circumstances would be repatriated for trial. That sounds fine, but I asked in a Parliamentary Question how many people had been repatriated and I was told the information was not collected and not available. It does surprise me if we are told that yes, it happens, clearly in Kosovo and Bosnia there are occasions when someone who might not actually be a defendant but might be a witness and would be required to give evidence, and we are told on the one hand "There is no video link" and, on the other hand, "We do not know how many people are involved in this". I find that extraordinary, and yet there it was in black and white in a Parliamentary Answer. I wonder if you could just help, because it is something I would like to get to the bottom of.
  (Mr Miller) We do not have centrally collected figures on this, and certainly my understanding is that the command, equally, does not hold a historical record. I think this is one of these cases where we would be relying on the perception of the staff officers concerned; if they became aware of a significant number of cases involving repatriation, then clearly the need for a video link would have to be reopened.
  (Brigadier Cottam) Can I help, Madam Chairman. I think the issue of the practicality of the video link is one thing. We are definitely looking at the extension of the video link system, for the reasons I think your Committee is now increasingly aware of. I think with regard to statistics, one of the reasons for establishing the Office for Standards of Casework in the Army is that we want to improve our visibility of the administration of cases. The example that Mr Key has mentioned is but one example, at the moment, of the sort of frustrations that we have experienced without that Office of Standards of Casework in place. It will be in place formally from 1 April, it is already working now and I would be very confident that one of the areas we will undoubtedly look at—and I will indeed take a note back to my colleague the Director—is the administration of casework for soldiers in the Balkans.

  Mr Key: Thank you, Chairman. I think that is very important because there are implications not only for the cost of repatriating people from the Balkans to this country—either as defendants or as witnesses—but also the disruption to the life of the units in Bosnia, because inevitably it means that they are going to be losing people who may be key personnel for at least a week, in terms of the flights available, to move them about. So, again, I express some surprise that we do not know how many people are involved in this. I would not wish to make the Ministry of Defence a slave to statistics, but it might be helpful from everybody's point of view if the Office for Standards of Casework could have a look at that.

Mr Keetch

  943. Following on from Mr Key's point, we did see and experience ourselves transport difficulties in the Balkans; our flight was diverted from Pristina to Skopje, so we did see ourselves some of the problems. It does seem strange to me that given the number of troops we have there, and given the fact that we all of us accept they are going to be there for some time, progress has not been made in establishing a video link—and, also, concerning detention, and where soldiers can be put. I think there is a detention aspect to this problem and also the ISDN lines do not exist at the moment. I would have thought that given the number of troops and the length of time they are likely to be there, that would be a very decent investment, because it is quite clear to us there is the cost element of disruption, as Mr Key has suggested.
  (Mr Miller) I know, not from this particular problem but other problems, that one of the issues involved is the infrastructure to support telecommunications. I think it is probably also worth making the point that the nature of the deployment out there with very little time allowed out of barracks means that, on the whole, servicemen do not get themselves into serious trouble, so that in itself is a factor which tends to result in relatively low rates of courts-martial.

  944. You mentioned some legal problems that there might be in terms of giving evidence over the video links. Can you elaborate on what those are? Have there been objections from lawyers to using them?
  (Mr Miller) There were fears, I think, about whether evidence given in this way would be acceptable, but I must confess that this has not been a point in any of the trials so far. This is something we can probably live with.
  (Brigadier Cottam) I think one of the concerns, if I may, Madam Chairman, was the distinction between legal advice that was very easily given on video link as opposed to evidence being given to a court over video. I think that was the area of concern rather than the use of a video link per se.

Mr Randall

  945. It is really only on a practical point: on repatriation, would the person being repatriated be escorted or would it be a matter of the severity of the individual charge or whatever? Is there a specified code on this?
  (Mr Miller) Frankly, I would have thought if there was any significant possibility of the individual absconding, yes, he would be escorted.

  946. So the costs could be—
  (Mr Miller) The costs of repatriation could be quite high. Equally, of course, the costs of holding a Court Martial abroad could be quite high, if you have to ship a large number of the Court Martial members and the legal support in to do it.

  947. Just to clarify one other point for me: we know there is not a video link with the Kosovo theatre. Is there one with Bosnia?
  (Mr Miller) No, I am afraid we do not know.

  948. Therefore, Courts Martial are not being held in Bosnia.
  (Brigadier Cottam) They have been in the past, as indeed they have in the Gulf prior to the introduction of video.

  949. If there was a Court Martial in Bosnia and they wanted witnesses from the United Kingdom, or anything like that, they would have to be flown in to Bosnia.
  (Mr Miller) Yes.


  950. Moving on to Service legal officers, you will be aware, Mr Miller, that in the evidence we have heard we certainly gained the impression that sometimes Service personnel doubt the—shall we say—objectivity of the Service legal officers. There was not, in the evidence we heard, any evidence to suggest that that was the case, but it was the issue of perception. I am interested in whether you think anything further could be done to persuade Service personnel that Service legal officers do provide genuinely independent legal advice, and that they are not an integral part of the chain of command.
  (Mr Miller) I think, Madam Chairman, that it probably has to depend on the Service lawyers being seen by their clients, if I can put it that way, to be doing a good and thoroughly professional job. Frankly—how can I put it—propaganda by the Ministry of Defence on the subject would probably be counter-productive.

  951. That is a very good point. It is the legal personnel themselves who need to try and persuade us.
  (Mr Miller) It is a statement of the obvious, but these are professional barristers and solicitors and they are, of course, working to the standards laid down by their respective professional bodies.

Ms Taylor

  952. I would accept that absolutely, but I would ask you has there ever been any formal assessment conducted by the MoD into the level of satisfaction that people would want to state? People will state objectively on a questionnaire how and in what way they feel they have been treated and have been represented. Has there actually been any formal assessment?
  (Mr Miller) Not to my knowledge, no. It is certainly something we might consider.

Mr Randall

  953. Could I ask whether you think there would be a difference between the Services on the level of satisfaction? Would they be the same in the Navy, for example?
  (Mr Miller) I cannot see any particular reason for the difference. Of course, the Naval structure is different in that it is not a separate legal service. I have worked with the Navy quite recently, and I simply was not conscious of even any general level of dissatisfaction with their lawyers, never mind a greater level.
  (Brigadier Cottam) Madam Chairman, of course in Germany it is, if you like, a soldier's satisfaction with the lawyers provided by the Royal Air Force and vice-versa that would be in question because we do use them opposite, face about, in order to emphasise the degree of fairness. Certainly we have seen no examples of dissatisfaction inter-service in that respect.

  954. Which is why the Navy might be different.
  (Mr Miller) Yes. Again, it is very difficult to produce anything other than anecdotal evidence but I certainly knew of cases where legally trained Naval officers not actually serving in a legal appointment had clearly provided advice in support of individuals who were faced with a Court Martial or, indeed, in connection with complaints. Certainly from the perception of the office dealing with this, there is no feeling anywhere that that advice was anything other than very much oriented towards the individual's interests.

  955. Service legal advice is available to Service personnel in the United Kingdom as well as abroad?
  (Mr Miller) Yes.

  Chairman: Thank you for that. The next issue is Absence Without Leave.

Mr Keetch

  956. Gentlemen, there have been a number of well-publicised cases recently of soldiers going AWOL for various reasons. Can you just explain what legal advice is available to soldiers who are detained for being AWOL either by Service police or civilian police?
  (Mr Miller) As I understand it, the normal practice is for the serviceman in question to be returned to his unit. At that point he would be entitled to exactly the same representation as any other serviceman facing a disciplinary inquiry; that is legal support in the course of the interviews and, if he is charged, during the trial.

  957. Even though it is a disciplinary matter, not a crime, he is still entitled to the same degree?
  (Mr Miller) Yes.

  958. Is there a distinction at all if that service person is under the age of 18?
  (Mr Miller) No, that would make no difference at all. In terms of the representation, it might affect the view that was taken of the offence.

  959. Generally, on absence without leave, does the Army or the Air Force keep statistics as to whether more service people now are going absent without leave than they used to? Is there a growth in that area, would you say?
  (Brigadier Cottam) I think, Madam Chairman, we do not keep statistics as such but we obviously do review—and, indeed, at the moment are reviewing—where we are, in the case of the Army, on our policy in response to absence without leave. I think we are doing that out of a duty of care rather than concern that it is a growing area, but we are looking at that in terms of a thorough review of how we should handle the process of absence. That review was already in place prior to these rather public cases that have been referred to by the Member of your Committee.

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