I thank the Minister for that reply. I understand that this is not an easy subject for him and that many of its aspects do not fall directly within his area of responsibility, but he is the Minister with responsibility for the armed forces, and he is responsible for their morale. He, like me, pays frequent and heartfelt tribute to our armed forceshe has done so again today, and I join him in doing so. Indeed, it is for that reason that I have put down this question because, as he
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knows, the prosecution of those seven soldiers had a serious effect on morale, and the collapse of the prosecutions has created even greater uncertainty and doubts in the mind of our armed forces.
Of course, where a crime has been committed and the evidence substantiates it, it must be prosecuted, but that was clearly not the case here. In his decision to stop the cases, the Judge Advocate General described the investigation of the case as "inadequate" and much of the evidence as "inherently weak or vague". He referred to witnesses having
and he referred to witnesses seeking "blood money". The bringing of this case therefore raises some serious questions. Who decided that these prosecutions should proceed? Was the Attorney-General involved in that decision? Was a political overview sought and was one given? Who was paying for the witnesses and who decided what they should be paid and for what?
We need urgent answers to those questions. They also form part of a wider concern about the serious damage to morale arising from doubtless well-intentioned but ultimately unsubstantiated prosecutions such as these and that against Trooper Williams, which also collapsed earlier this year. We must never forget that our forces are operating in a highly dangerous and hostile environment where confidence is essential and where nearly 100 of our soldiers have lost their lives. They cannot operate effectively with the spectre of the lawyer metaphorically looking over their shoulder.
Does the Minister agree that such prosecutions are highly damaging to recruitment and retention, both of which are under severe pressure? Does he also agree that they highlight a failure of his Department's duty of care towards service personnel? In that regard, can he throw some light on a report in yesterday's edition of The Observer that the Secretary of State will this week unveil a so-called action plan to offer support and counselling to those facing such prosecutions? Will he undertake to initiate a full review of how such prosecutions are undertaken?
Does the Minister agree that such prosecutions undermine the whole concept of mission command upon which the British Army operates? Does he share my sympathy for the view expressed in another place by Lord Boyce, the most recently retired Chief of the Defence Staff? He said that
He went on to say that they are being pushed in a direction where necessary operational military orders could be deemed improper or legally unsound. The battlefield is not a court of law and actions often have to be taken spontaneously. Is it not vital that in the proper pursuit of justice we must never compromise the ability of our armed forces to fight and to win?
I appreciate what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said at the outset about the role that is played by Members across the Chamber in highlighting not only the difficulties that personnel face in conflict or in dealing with the aftermath of conflict, no
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matter where they may be, but the way in which they carry out their duties. I am sure that that view is shared throughout the House.
I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who served as a Northern Ireland Minister at a time when members of Her Majesty's armed forces and the security services were brought to trial for actions that were carried out, is not arguing that we should simply turn a blind eye to wrongdoing. [Interruption.] Well, we have established that; it is important to do so. I do not know whether he is then arguing that we should have ministerial oversight of the judicial process. That was not the case in the past, it is not the case now, and it would not be advisable for it to be the case in the future.
All judicial processes have to be wholly independent, and those circumstances applied in this case. I recognise the way in which it has played out. Great publicity was given to it and it was sometimes exploited by those commenting on it, perhaps for political purposes, on both sides of the debatethose who want to oppose the Government per se and those who want to oppose what the Government are doing in Iraq overall. That does not help in the judicial process, which must be wholly independent and, in the right sense of the word, calculating in terms of all the evidence that is before it. The Judge Advocate General determined that there was true justification for bringing this case to trial and sufficient material evidence so to do. He also recognised the very difficult circumstances in which the SIB carried out its investigations, although he went on to comment on what he perceived to be the failings in those investigations that ultimately led to the collapse of the case.
As I said, the whole matter will be subject to a thorough review. We review every incident of such a serious nature. As MOD Ministers weand equally importantly, if not more so, the chiefs of staff who have the responsibility alongside us to maintain high moralemust ensure that any lessons that need to be learned will be learned. I give the right hon. and learned Gentleman that commitment. As I said in my opening statement, that review is under way. We have said that consistently and, as we take each lesson on board and determine what we must do, a suitable report will be made in some shape or form to the House.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked about the payment of witnesses. There is nothing unusual about witnesses receiving expenses and that applied in the case that we are considering. We must now examine whether the level was appropriate and what can be construed from that. The military court service made the decision and it, too, is currently reviewing its processes.
I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and Conservative Members who have supported us in the conflict recognise that, as in any theatre of conflict, there is a fine line to walk. We must ensure that we maintain the confidence of the people whom we are trying to help while ensuring that our troops receive adequate and proper resources to carry out their job. Some of the comments that are made off side do not help morale because they undermine the difficult task that our soldiers face. They know that they have to conform to the rule of law and those who misunderstand and misdirect comments do not help in boosting morale.
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Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): The right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) mentioned Trooper Williams, who is a constituent of mine. All charges against him were dropped. I asked the Attorney-General on 2 March about those matters and I was told that the role of the military prosecuting authorities is subject to the general superintendence of the Attorney-General. I was further told that the Attorney-General would not reassess his role. In the light of the judgment and what has emerged, may I take it that the Minister will press the Attorney-General to review his role?
Mr. Ingram: I do not think that my hon. Friend has made a case for that. The collapse of a trial or the fact that it does not proceed to conviction does not mean that the Attorney-General's supervisory role is wrong per se. That happens in civilian life, too, but does not mean that the Attorney-General should not be involved in due process. I am not a lawyer, but I believe that it is right that the highest judicial authority in the land examines such matters if required because that places a protection in the system of proper legal assessment of all aspects that are presented. I know that that supervisory role is undertaken with the highest probity and independence. I hope that that is so ever more.
Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): I join the Minister and the shadow Secretary of State for Defence in paying tribute to our armed forces in the dangerous places where they operateIraq, Afghanistan and many other parts of the world. I also agree with the Minister's comments about the dangers of ministerial oversight of judicial process.
Serious military justice issues arise from the case. I hope that we will consider them in the Armed Forces Bill in due course. It is surely a fundamental principle in our country that, as the Minister said, our armed forces must never be above the law. However, is not the quid pro quo that any prosecution should be brought only on evidence gathered from proper forensics, timely witness statements and, in a murder case, some basic evidence that would allow a post mortem? The Judge Advocate General was scathing in his opinion of the investigation that the Royal Military Police conducted. Surely the lack of resources available to the investigation team was the basic problem. For that, Ministers should be held fully accountable.