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Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): As one of the very small band of Members in all parts of the House who served with Her Majesty's armed forcesadmittedly in non-hostile, non-war circumstancesmay I say that I consider the prosecution to have been totally unnecessary and totally unacceptable? Is the Minister aware that members of our armed forces, unlike politicians, put their lives on the line? If it is believed that they have done anything seriously wrong, should there not be unimpeachable evidence that they have done so before a prosecution is brought? I believe that we are treating our armed forcesnot only in Iraq but in Northern Ireland, those who serve and those who have retiredin a grotesque and unacceptable way.
Let me calm it down a wee bit. The hon. Gentleman says that he has military experience, but I think I am right in saying that he has never had any ministerial experience. I conclude from his comments that had he been a Minister on this occasion, he would
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have interfered in the due process of law. That is not the standard that applies in this country, and I do not think Conservative Front Benchers are saying the same, although some of them have been through it.[Interruption.] The Attorney-General will answer for himself. His is the highest opinion that can be sought.
The Army prosecuting authority is dealing with some heavyweight issues, which has excited the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton). It is right that it should have done so, but he has been led to the wrong conclusions. I think it appropriate for that independent authority to take the case to the Attorney-General, who is a ministerial superintendent of the APA. Independence is involved in that process. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that it is not involved, he will have to prove his case. The system has stood the test of time. It is still valid today, and I think that it will stand the test of time in the future.
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Anyone who had listened to the Minister, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) and the other Members who have asked questions would probably say that the Minister and the Government have now achieved the worst of all possible positions. It may be only a minority, but a minority of public opinion suspects that the process is not open enough, not transparent enough and not independent. At the same time, members of the armed forces undoubtedly feel that they will be tried twice, once by a military system and once by a normal civil system. I know that the Minister is responsible only for the defence side, but may I say to him that the Government, including the Attorney-General, need to examine the whole system? As I have said, at present they are in the worst possible position, and I believe that that undermines the morale of our troops.
As I said, I believe that the system is open and transparent. If we did not have an open and transparent system, we probably would not have heard some of the very good questions that we have all been asked today. That shows that people understand a large part of the process, which is conducted openly. We have an independent prosecuting system and an independent judiciary. Some issues involving the relationship between all those elements will have to be dealt with by the armed forces Bill, and I know that the hon. Gentleman will make a valuable contribution to the debate.
Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con):
I am sure that the Minister will take a serious and genuine look at why
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the prosecution was brought, but does he understand that there is a wider danger, which was articulated in some of the Sunday papers and which has given many of us who served in Northern Ireland cause for great concern? Does he understand the wider effect of that and the need for joined-up government? Will he exclude here in the House the implied threat in those articles that there will be a tribunal to look into cases where suspect terrorists were shot by members of the armed forces in Northern Ireland? Does he understand that that will damage recruitment, as my hon. Friends have said, which must be taken into account?
Mr. Ingram: If wrong-doing has occurred, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not saying that we should simply ignore it. [Interruption.] Members indicate dissent, but I am asking the hon. Gentleman whether, as an ex-soldier, he understands what he was taught and the rule of law that he had to apply. He knew that if he stepped over that line he could be subject to investigation. Clearly, as with any other criminal action, if that is indeed what it was, such an investigation could be subject to retrospective review. At any point, if new evidence arises it is right that it is examined.
I am not going to comment on speculation in the press. That will be debated when we deal with some of the ongoing difficult issues we have had to face day upon day, month upon month in moving forward the peace process in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman because he, as a serving soldier, helped to bring about that peace by applying the highest standards of integrity, probity and[Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. You must be careful, Mr. Howarth. The Opposition came to me and asked for an urgent question, and I requested that the Minister come to the House. I must give the Minister protection. No one should be shouting at him while he is speaking.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The Minister mentioned the supervisory overseeing role of the Attorney-General. Presumably, the Attorney-General had a look at all the evidence, or an outline of the evidence, which the Minister has admitted was completely flawed. The whole case has been a fiasco. Can the right hon. Gentleman imagine this happening in countries such as France or Spain? Should not the Attorney-General now explain himself?
"I make no criticism of the prosecution or the Army Prosecuting Authority, even though I have directed verdicts of not guilty at this stage. Where on the face of the papers presented by the investigator a serious crime appears to have been committed it is perfectly proper to take the matter to trial, and in this case the prosecution team have presented their case properly and objectively."
This short two-clause Bill is brought before the House as the legislative consequence of the Government's decision to extend the remit of Sir Michael Lyons' independent inquiry into local government funding, and the decision that followed to postpone the 2007 council tax revaluation in England.
Local government is at the heart of national life and has a unique role in our communities. It plays a crucial role in delivering services, leading and co-ordinating the activities of local public, private and voluntary organisations, and making villages, towns and cities more prosperous and pleasant to live in. I pay tribute to councillors of all parties and to hard-working public servants for the way in which they have raised standards, so that the Audit Commission's comprehensive performance assessment now classifies two thirds of upper tier authorities as either "excellent" or "good".
Important changes are under way in local government. Local authorities are leading new children's trusts across the country that are bringing together social services, education, health and other services. Local area agreements enable councils and central Government to recognise and to agree local priorities, to rationalise funding streams and to support greater local leadership.
Our manifesto set out an ambitious programme of further public sector reform, continuing the improvement in neighbourhood services to make them more responsive to the needs of people who use them. Since 1997, there has been a 33 per cent. real terms increase in grants to local government. Investment and reform have gone together and have delivered.
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