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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Before I call the first speaker, I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 15-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches, which will operate from the beginning of the debate.
Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab): I raised the case of Cyprus in Adjournment debates on 22 May 2003 and 17 July 2003, and countless times before that, and I return to the subject again today. On 17 July, I said that on the surface it appeared that many changes had taken place during recent months but that the reality was different. Unfortunately, my analysis now is that the situation appears to be much the same today.
Perhaps, only for a moment, about a month ago, it seemed as if there might be a glimmer of hope that Cyprus might join the European Union as a united island on 1 May 2004. Sadly, on 11 November 2003, the putative leader of the occupied territory of Cyprus, Mr. Denktash, commenting on the forthcoming so-called elections in the occupied territory scheduled for 14 December, said in an interview with Reuters:
Although the Turkish Cypriot pro-EU side won slightly more of the vote last Sunday, the electoral system is complex enough to have given both sides 25 seats. It is equally important that if no coalition can be formed, new so-called elections must be held in mid-February 2004. Even worse, if the pro-EU side were to win a re-ballot, it is now too late for Cyprus to join as a united island. However, I am sure that President Papadopoulos of Cyprus will continue to do his utmost to find a solution.
There are other complications. Many people, including me, believe that the real power over the occupied territory lies in Ankara, and particularly with the Turkish Prime Minister, Mr. Erdogan. As the Minister is aware, Mr. Erdogan visited the occupied territory on 15 November, when he announced his total support of Mr. Denktash's stance. Such an endorsement, of course, reveals the fact that at present Mr. Erdogan rejects the Annan plan. The Foreign Minister of the Republic of Cyprus, Mr. Iacovou, described the Erdogan visit as "completely illegal and condemnable", and he wondered what now must be in the minds of the foreign mediators who have constantly attributed good will to Mr. Erdogan.
Indeed, the European Commission, in its regular annual report on Turkey, identified a "serious obstacle" to Turkish hopes of starting formal accession talks with the EU if no settlement is reached over the divided island of Cyprus. The report says:
Turkey has indeed started on ambitious reforms, but very few of them, so far as I can see, are being, or have been, implemented. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House to convey again to our Foreign Secretary and other Ministers that I, and many of my colleagues in the House, want real changes to be implemented in Turkey in practice for a considerable time, and a proper settlement in Cyprus, before even contemplating allowing Turkey to commence accession negotiations.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): I am glad to contribute to this debate. Unusually, I want to raise an issue of considerable importance to my constituency and one special family in it, but I think that the issue will be of concern to every hon. Member.
During the statement by the Secretary of State for Defence last Thursday, I listened with growing incredulity. He made a tiny reference to the National Audit Office report, published that morning, and to the Ministry's own report, entitled "Operations in Iraq: Lessons for the Future". His Conservative opposite number also ignored evidence of serious inadequacies. In the course of nearly 30 minutes of exchanges between the two Front Benchers, no hard evidence was given about the serious equipment shortfalls that were apparent from the reports. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) was present and made a brief reference to the subject.
On Monday, there was another exchange about the NAO report, but the Secretary of State again attempted to play down the significance of detailed findings of mistakes and failures in his area of responsibility. This is more than a theoretical, logistics problem: it was and is a matter of life and death, as in the tragic case of Sergeant Steven Roberts from Wadebridge in my constituency.
Sergeant Roberts was the first British fatality in Iraq. He was shot during a confrontation with Iraqi dissidents on 24 March. There were several mysteries about the circumstances of the attack and his fatal wounds, and on behalf of his widow, his mother and his family, I have been seeking answers in three specific areas of concern ever since. I reiterated my inquiries in parliamentary questions last week, and in a debate that I initiated in Westminster Hall. They are as follows. First, why was Sergeant Roberts not wearing appropriate enhanced combat body armour? Was he ordered to pass on his reinforced flak jacket to other troops thought to be more vulnerable? Secondly, exactly who fired the fatal shot or shots? Thirdly, did Sergeant Roberts's weapon perform correctly?
However, the ECBA was withdrawn as 2 Royal Tank Regiment Battle Group (2 RTR BG) were short of 300 sets therefore the CO, having considered all options, deemed it necessary that dismounted Infantry soldiers had the ECBA protection and therefore ordered its redistribution. This left Sgt Roberts with Combat Body Armour (CBA), which is a temperate cover (not designed to house ceramic plates)."
This statistical data was examined and considered by a Consultant Forensic Scientist who agreed with the specifications and protective properties of the HV plates.
A reconstruction was conducted under the direction of a Forensic Pathologist in consultation with evidence of the Consultant Forensic Scientist and their findings indicate that . . . The ceramic plate insert would have covered the entry wound site upon the front of the centre of the chest of Sgt Roberts. This was calculated by examination of post-mortem photographs, transposition of coveralls worn by Sgt Roberts at the time of his death compared against measurements taken at post-mortem.
Taking this into consideration with the protective properties of the HV plates, both the Forensic Pathologist and Consultant Forensic Scientist concluded that had Sgt Roberts been wearing ECBA with the protective plates correctly fitted at the time of shooting, the 7.62mm tracer round that struck him in the centre of his chest and ultimately killed him, would have been defeated."
21,759 covers and 32,581 pairs of plates were issued into the supply chain by 24 March 2003. However, the Department's Defence Clothing Integrated Project Team estimated that approximately 200,000 sets had been issued since the Kosovo campaign in 1999, greatly exceeding the theoretical requirement, but these seem to have disappeared."
Despite these efforts, insufficient numbers were distributed in-theatre, largely as a result of difficulties with asset-tracking and distribution."
In chapter 8, the Ministry's report repeated the NAO criticisms of late delivery and accuracy of distribution of ECBA. The inevitable conclusion must be that Ministry of Defence incompetence, or inadequate preparations, despite the very long build-up before hostilities began, led to an entirely avoidable death in the case of Sergeant Steve Roberts. Faced with that irrefutable evidence, one can only dimly imagine the added trauma faced by his widow, his mother and his family.
The second question that arises is who fired the fatal shot. Immediately after the tragic events of 24 March, Sergeant Roberts's family received a sympathetic and supportive letter from a senior officer at the battlegroup headquarters of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment. He wrote of the
The final question is whether Sergeant Roberts's weapon malfunctioned. The investigation report from the Ministry, sent last week to Mrs. Roberts, includes a reference to tests of Sergeant Roberts's weapon:
It is worthy of note that prior to this inspection the pistol was re-issued to a Staff Sergeant and a Corporal, both with 2 RTR, who did not experience any difficulty with the weapon, but did not fire it."
What conclusions can we reach? Those are the facts, as far as the family have been made aware of them. Sergeant Roberts was a very brave man, doing his duty for his country. Those who serve in the armed forces on our behalf know the dangers that they face. Tragic mistakes are an inevitable feature of all hostilities, however sophisticated the technology may become. Butand it is a big buthis widow and family are naturally devastated by that information, dragged out of the Ministry of Defence after eight long months of waiting and worrying. I believe that they are entitled to expect better.
Mrs. Roberts has told me that she wants to be absolutely sure that such awful mistakes can never happen again. She wants to be certain that no other family will be similarly, and unnecessarily, bereaved. I do not expect the Minister this afternoon to be able to offer comfort and reassurance to that family. However, the very least the Secretary of State should do is to agree that I should bring Mrs. Roberts, and other members of Sergeant Roberts's immediate family, to meet him. Then, perhaps, the family will at last have the consolation that some small good can come out of that terrible tragedy. Those who serve us in the armed forces, and their families, are entitled to know that Ministers are on their side and that they will take seriously the lessons of that unnecessary tragedy.
I express my good wishes for Christmas to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to other colleagues, and I hope that we can agree that a family who have been so tragically and unnecessarily bereaved should receive that message, at Christmas, from the Secretary of State.