Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Christmas Adjournment

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Vernon Coaker.]

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.

2.9 pm

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:

Who are the opposition to whom he referred? The simple reality is that they are the Turkish Cypriots who want to join the EU with their Greek Cypriot counterparts. But who are those on the side of the Turkish Cypriot Mr. Denktash? A people imported from Turkey who, over the past 29 and a half years, have totally changed the demography of the occupied territory and were given voting rights in that somewhat dodgy election. The outcome of the so-called elective poll was deadlock, and it now seems highly unlikely that the occupied territory will be able to accede to the EU with its Greek Cypriot republican counterparts.

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.

18 Dec 2003 : Column 1753

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:

At present, the Government, like previous Governments, remain convinced that Turkey is fast becoming a healthy parliamentary democracy. I do not understand or agree with that blinkered view, in relation not only to Cyprus but to other major problems in Turkey.

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.

2.14 pm

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?

18 Dec 2003 : Column 1754

The report summary sent by the casualty visiting officer on behalf of the Ministry of Defence last week to Mrs Roberts states the conclusions with stark and tragic simplicity:

I am sorry to have to repeat all that in full, but obviously the document has not been published; it has been made available to me by Mrs. Roberts and the family. It went on:

It also states:

I am sure that every hon. Member can anticipate the reaction of his widow and family on receiving that news just before Christmas.

The NAO report was presented to the House last week and reported a very specific finding under the heading "ECBA" :

18 Dec 2003 : Column 1755

The Ministry of Defence prides itself on its audit trail on all equipment. How can the NAO report to the House that 200,000 sets seem to have disappeared, months afterwards? I find that extraordinary.

The NAO report continued:

The Ministry of Defence's own report, which examined its own proceedings, said:

In other words, Sergeant Roberts may not have been alone in being denied proper protection—critically so, in his case.

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

He went on to say that

That leaves in the air the uncomfortable possibility that he could have been killed by "friendly fire". That point has still not been clarified, despite my attempts to obtain an explanation from the Ministry of Defence. In the first awful shock of their loss, the family did not recognise the potential alternative interpretations of that last sentence—that it was a stray bullet from his colleague that caused Sergeant Roberts's fatal wound. Was it yet

18 Dec 2003 : Column 1756

another case of friendly fire? In order to dispel that dreadful idea, I am still asking Ministers for an explanation. To this day, to my knowledge, the family have been given no explicit assurance on that aspect of the confused events of 24 March.

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:

Again, that has worrying implications. It would seem to imply that there was no test of the pistol before it was reissued. The statement that those using it did not experience any difficulty hardly reassures his family or the rest of us, as it also states that they 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. But—and it is a big but—his 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.

Next Section

IndexHome Page