Mr. Ingram: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening comments. He is right that some of the issues will need further examination and scrutiny in the Armed Forces Bill and I hope that all Members who participate in the proceedings will do so with a genuinely open mind to find the best legal framework in which our armed forces can continue to operate.
The hon. Gentleman appeared to have reached a conclusionI wish that I had his capacity.[Interruption.] He has not got hindsight but foresight in one sense. I said that a range of issues would be subject to thorough review. We cannot reach a conclusion about them until all outstanding matters are tackled. There are two other directed cases and two awaiting direction. That process has to be gone through, and it would be wrong to say at this early stage that we have come to a conclusion. If a subsequent trial finds
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something new or different, we shall have to examine that. This is going to be a thoughtful and detailed process. However, where we can identify specific issues about which there is no real debate, of course we shall seek to act.
The whole question of resources is one that we have to look at, at any point in time. We need to ask whether there is a sufficiency of numbers, for example, and whether the environment is appropriate for the troops to carry out their activities. We then have to walk a very fine line. I can envisage the hon. Gentleman saying that there should be an investigation, perhaps even a prosecution, but he must take into account the difficulties involved. No matter what resources we put into that theatre, there could still be an extreme risk when carrying out such an investigation. It so happens that, in this trial, a view was taken that those involved in hearing the trial should visit the scene. However, it was judged to be too dangerous for them to do so. It could also be too dangerous in many circumstances for the Royal Military Police to carry out further investigations. This would not be for a lack of trying, or for a lack of resources, but because circumstances might just dictate that it was impossible. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): If I may, I wish to put this proposition to my right hon. Friend as honestly and sincerely as possible. I accept that our soldiers have to operate under the rule of lawthat is what makes them different from the people they are fighting againstand we must ensure that any trial or action abroad is totally independent. We must make that as clear as possible, so as to dismiss any allegations that political pressure has been brought to bear to ensure that this trial took place. We must be seen to be operating according to the letter of the law, to win friends in places such as Iraq. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that there was no political involvement in, and no political pressure brought to bear on, these cases?
Mr. Ingram: I know that my hon. Friend is a very good friend of Her Majesty's armed forces, and I always listen with interest to what he says on these matters. I can give him an absolute guarantee, as I tried to do in my opening response, that there was no political interference in this matternor should there be. It would be wholly damaging if we were acting on one side of the debate. It could damage the independence of the judicial process or the morale of the troops if things were going the other way. We have been completely hands off. The Army prosecuting authority is wholly independent, as are the investigation processes. Some of the nuances involved, such as the role of the commanding officer, will of course be considered during the process of the Armed Forces Bill. I am sure that my hon. Friend will make valuable contributions during that process and help us to achieve a corpus of legislation that will help the armed forces for many decades to come.
Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con):
One of the many problems with this is, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) has said, the possible knock-on effect on
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recruitment and retention. Will the Minister confirm that only a tiny, tiny minority of our armed forces are ever accused, let alone found guilty, of wrong doing, and that when young men and women decide to take up a career in the armed forces, they carry with them the pride and the reputation of this country and the thanks of this House?
Mr. Ingram: The right hon. Gentleman makes a valuable and important point. The answer to his question is yes, only a very small number is involved. As I have said, two more cases have been directed and two await direction, so we shall have more of this debate. The men and women, many of whom are very young, who join the armed forces are joining a highly professional, highly capable organisation, which seeks to deliver the good face of this country. They are a force for good. As in any part of our society, when people step over the line and do wrong they must be brought to justice. That applies to the armed forces as much as to anyone else. However, given that more than 80,000 of our armed forces have served in Iraq, and only a very small number have been accused never mind found guilty of wrongdoing, that speaks volumes for their quality. Clearly, that should encourage more young people to consider the armed forces as a career.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Will the Minister put on the record that the seven serving and former members of the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment left that court martial without a stain on their character? Can I advise him that the relief across the Colchester garrison and the wider community is matched only by the disbelief that the trial happened in the first place? Many figures have been mentioned, but can he indicate how much the whole saga cost?
Mr. Ingram: On the cost issue, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that when dealing with QCs the cash register keeps running for some time afterwards, so the total cost is not available. It was very sizeable, however, given that each individual had a QC and all the support arrangements that applied. When any of our people are subjected to the rule of law in terms of court action, we are determined that they should be given full support. In addition, although I cannot give him a precise answer, we probably do not count in all the welfare support and man hours that contribute to providing that type of support to our people, who, we recognise, can be very fragile in such circumstances.
As to the disbelief in the Colchester garrison or perhaps across the Army and armed forces, I do not take that view. Certainly, because the trial collapsed, the question has been asked: why did it happen in the first place? The hon. Gentleman can assist his constituents and their families by reading the transcript of what the Judge Advocate General said, understanding that, and then answering his own first question.
Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con):
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) and I represent thousands of service families in Wiltshire. We know the enormous strain put on the families of our servicemen and women overseas. Will he
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consider the financing of the Army welfare services and the Army Families Federation, both of which do an enormous amount to assist the families of those involved, and both of which are constantly under financial pressure?
Mr. Ingram: The answer to that must be yeswe must consider that all the time, given the intensity and tempo of attitudes and views about the pressure on our people. We cannot chase the last headline, howeverthe hon. Gentleman is more sensible than to do so, and I wish that others were as balancedbecause if we do that, we do not necessarily fix the problem. We must consider shortfalls and shortcomings in the round and examine where our duty of care mechanisms for our people can be strengthened. We are always on that case and many things happen within the system, sometimes without even ministerial oversight and approval, simply because they are required to be done. The matter is always under review.
Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) raised earlier the trial of Trooper Williams, which collapsed in similar circumstances. That case was brought to trial only after the Army Board, of which the Minister is a member, referred it to the Attorney-Generalone of the rare occasions on which that has happened. Can the Minister confirm that the case of these members of the Parachute Regiment was not referred from the Army Board to the Attorney-General, and that it was purely the decision of the commanding officer to bring these men to trial, and not of people further up the chain or, indeed, the Army Board of which he is a member?