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Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Obviously, tonight we are discussing an important subject. It is important that we air our views on behalf of those who find themselves at the wrong end of the law when they thought that they were performing their duty on an order from this country to go to war. Those people put their lives at risk and rightly did the job that they felt they had been trained to do.
Yes, there is a rogue element in everything; and yes, there was a tragic case of an Iraqi whose life was taken in jailwe cannot shy away from that. Somebody is guilty and should be brought to trial. However, should a colonel who was 13, 16 or 20 miles awayno one can be sure because he was away from where the event happenedface the threat of court action or a war crimes trial under a system that was introduced for people such as Milosevic? How on earth could a British colonel doing his duty in a proud regiment such as the Queen's Lancashire suddenly find himself being tried alongside Milosevic? Milosevic was responsible for genocide within Europe. How can a British colonel who was nowhere near, and was unaware that the event had taken place, face the threat of such a trial?
One must ask, why should it stop at a colonel? Why not the brigadier? Why not the general on the ground? Why not the commander of the British forces? Why not, some might say, the Minister or the Prime Minister? There is no end if we follow the chain that is being used so far. Surely we ought not to say that we are making a colonel a scapegoat. What is happening is a tragedy. There needs to be an investigation into the circumstances of that death; nobody will shy away from that. Someone is guilty and someone should be tried. However, it is unacceptable to try and make responsible a colonel who was doing his duty and was given one of the highest honours, a DSO, for his services in Basra. For a man who led his regiment, the Queen's Lancashire, suddenly to find himself in line with Milosevic, a war criminal, is unacceptable.
Trooper Williams has been mentioned. His life was ruined by the chain of events. I feel sorry that someone who is asked to put his life at risk to serve our country
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according to the wishes of this House should be treated in the worst possible way. It is not acceptable. It is not the right way to go ahead. I hope that common sense will prevail quickly. Let us lift the cloud that is hanging over the British Army. Otherwise, people will say, "Why should I join the Army? Why should I risk my life in any of the three services to find that I may be classed with Milosevic?" It is not the way forward. I hope that people in the Ministry of Defence will agree and that the Minister will bring some common sense to the approach that has been taken so far. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) has brought these cases to the House. They need to be heard not only on the Floor of the House but across the country.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity to speak. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on procuring this debate. It is no coincidence that Lancashire Members on both sides of the House are listening to this debate tonight. I shall expand on that in a moment.
Private soldier, trooper, fusilier, guardsman, lance corporal.I do not know what the public think those ranks are. Are these mature, developed, highly educated individuals? No, they are not. They are the work horses of the British Army. I commanded 900 of them; 670 were privates and lance corporals. The average age of that gang from Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire was 19½. Most of my private soldiers were straight out of training. They were a little over 18. I asked those boys to go to Bosnia to do a difficult job. They did a fine job, but they faced nothing like the requirements that the soldiers of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, the Coldstream Guards and the King's Royal Hussars face in theatre at the moment.
It is instructive to notice that Private Beharry has won the nation's most coveted award, the Victoria cross. Guardsman Wakefield has just been blown to pieces by an improvised explosive device. Lance Corporal Brackenbury was killed in action leading his team just outside Basra. We ask a terrific amount of these young men. They are exclusively young men; there is no room on the front line at the moment for women. We also ask a huge amount of the non-commissioned and commissioned officers who command them.
I know that it is a truism, but command is a lonely business. It is a demanding job to get things right when one has youngsters of this ilk around who can get things terribly wrong. One of my lance corporals some 25 miles away from my battalion headquarters in Bosnia got hold of some slivovic, got drunk, took a pistol and, for reasons best known to him, shot at one of my interpreters, and missed. He probably should have been charged for bad musketry, but there we are. The point was that the soldier committed a crime. He was arrested and tried under the Army Act 1955. At no moment did I, as his commanding officer, feel that my future, my career, my judgment or my integrity was in doubt. I recommended that that soldier went forward to court martial, and he was duly punished.
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It is instructive and interesting that next door to me was a battalion that did not come from Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. It got things dreadfully wrong on a number of occasions. At the end of its tour its commanding officer was told that there would be no decoration or promotion for him. He had made a bad job of commanding the battalion. The soldiers under his command who faced discipline under the Army Act did just that. He was not tried; he was not dragged in front of the courthe paid the price in another way. Those conditions were small beer compared to those faced by the Queen's Lancashire Regiment. It is a fine regiment. I had the honour to command one of its companies under my operational command in Bosnia, and I had nothing but admiration for its men.
Regiments do not change their spots over 300 years. That regiment was constantly attackedby gunfire, improvised explosive devices or ambushes. Many of its soldiers were wounded and one of its officers was killed. They had the difficult job not of Telic 1, which involved fighting a clearly defined enemy, but of on the one hand dealing with terrorists, insurgents and enemies, and on the other helping to rebuild the country and deal with destitute men, women and children and the appalling problem of prisoner handlingall this on about four hours sleep a day, probably in two two-hour bursts. Mr. Deputy Speaker, I do not know if you have experienced that, but if you are 18 or 19 and you are getting four hours kip a day it really is not good. I have experienced it. On top of that, they were operating in temperatures between 40 and 50oC. It was not easy.
What was the judgment on that battalion at the end of their time in Basra? A handful of mentions in dispatches, the first military cross to a warrant officer that the regiment had won in 40 years, and the commanding officer not just given the distinguished service order, but promoted to full colonel at one of the earliest ages possible, earmarked for higher command in the Army, and told that he would probably get an operational brigade in the near future. Colonel Jorge MendoncaI know him wellis and was no fool. He was a fine officer who led a fine battalion well.
I wonder, to echo the points that were made by the hon. Member for Chorley, just how a commanding officer can be found culpable for failing to supervise soldiers who were some several miles away from him. Again, it did not happen to me eight or nine years ago when I was commanding in Bosnia. I absolutely echo the point so presciently made by the hon. Gentleman. If one is going to charge a commanding officer under the Army Acts and thus the International Criminal Court Act, where does the responsibility stop? The brigade commander told the commanding officer what to do. The divisional commander told the brigade commander what to do. Are they not equally guilty?
For not one moment do I condone whatever happened to Baha Musa. If a crime was committed, the soldiers and those who were responsible must be dealt with, but I fail to understand how the International Criminal Court Act can be invoked when we have perfectly adequate Army Acts that should be able to deal with this. Those who are thought to be directly responsible for these actions should be brought before a
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court martial and tried by the officers and the Judge Advocate General, who understands the conditions under which these men are asked to serve.
The Army exists on something called mission command. It is a military creeda doctrineand essentially all it means is that a commander says to a subordinate, "This is what I want you to do. These are the resources that you have to do the job and these are the limitations on that job. I want it done by a certain time, with the expenditure of a certain amount of ammunition." That subordinate is then told, "Go, my boy. Don't ask questions. If I tell you to capture hill 60 and the enemy is not on hill 60, press on to hill 70; take it. Do not ask questions. Use your initiative; drive; succeed; minimise your casualties; defeat the enemy."
One simply cannot charge a commander with failing to supervise, having for his whole professional career taught him to apply mission command. Mission command applies just as much to the handling of prisoners as it does to the capture of an objective. If this criminal action goes forward, at a stroke we shall undermine the theology, the creed and the operational doctrine of the British Army. What it means is that commanding officers, company commanders and the other commanders at all chains of command will simply say, "No. I will not take this risk; I will not use my initiative because if I do, I may well end up going to court. Even if my superiors under the Army Acts find me not guilty or find that there is no case to answer, I can still be tried under the International Criminal Court Act."
It is instructive to note, Mr. Deputy SpeakerI welcome you to your placethat with the police recently, when two armed officers have been charged with shooting an unarmed man, who I gather had a table leg under his arm at the time, other armed officers have, in a military phrase, refused to soldier. They have thrown down their weapons or they have threatened to throw down their weapons and say, "If you wish us to go on the streets, prepared to use lethal force, you must give us some protection." The Trooper Williams case and the case of Colonel Jorge Mendonca take that assurance away at a stroke. If the Minister wishes our regiments and our soldiers to do wonderful, amazing, valorous and chivalrous things, we must give them our support.
Too often, we ask boys to do men's jobs. They deserve not just our respect and admiration but our support. If the case of Colonel Jorge Mendonca comes to the conclusion that I fear it might, not only will that support be missing, but we shall have sadly and sorely let down every brave man that takes up arms in the name of the Queen.
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