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Northern Ireland (Military Personnel Prosecutions)

10. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): If he will make a statement on the possible prosecution of former military personnel in respect of past service in Northern Ireland. [27273]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig): Earlier this year the Police Service of Northern Ireland announced that it intended to review more than 2,000 unresolved deaths from the troubles. A number of those deaths involved actions by the security forces.

Mr. Harper: Let me first associate myself with the condolences expressed by the Secretary of State. The Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire regiment is my home regiment as well.

Does the Minister find it as offensive as I do that former soldiers who carried out operations in Northern Ireland that were authorised by Ministers are to be placed in the same moral category as terrorist murderers?

Mr. Touhig: The hon. Gentleman has made a very serious point. I think that Members in all parts of the House would agree that the British armed forces have a reputation second to none for the high standards of behaviour that they set for themselves. Our forces would be the first to say that they are always required to act within the law.
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As for the activities of our forces in Northern Ireland, I think that they carried out their duties with fortitude and skill in incredibly difficult circumstances. They were never intended to be, and should not be, above the law: that is certainly not their desire, or the desire of the House. We have no doubt, however, that in circumstances affecting investigations of any actions of our troops, they will have all the legal advice that they need from the Ministry of Defence. We have a record of which Members throughout the House can be proud in respect of, for instance, the support that we have given our soldiers who were involved in the Bloody Sunday inquiry. It is important for us to continue to demonstrate that support for our forces in difficult circumstances.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Does the Minister believe that there is moral equivalence between public servants acting on orders—doing their duty and defending the peace against terrorists—and those very same terrorists committing murder? Does he defend the equal treatment proposed in the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill? Of course all wrongdoers must be disciplined, but the determination of the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General to prosecute serving soldiers for doing their duty in theatres from Northern Ireland to Iraq, from Trooper Williams to Colonel Mendonca, is destroying the trust between the armed forces and their political and military commanders.

Mr. Touhig: I think that the hon. Gentleman's language is somewhat excessive. There is no doubt that the armed forces of this country have the complete support of Members in all parts of the House. They have a high reputation of which they and we are proud.

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that the investigation could involve whether a British serviceman had witnessed a certain incident. It might not involve any prosecution. The hon. Gentleman may scoff, but the important thing is for our forces to get the message that the MOD—with, I hope, the support of the entire House—will provide all necessary help, understanding and support if they are faced with difficult circumstances. The question of any prosecution is a matter for the police service and the prosecuting services in Northern Ireland, but our record is second to none, and if our soldiers are in difficulty and need help and advice we will ensure that they get it.
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Nuclear Deterrent

11. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): How many civil servants in his Department are working on policy for replacing Trident, broken down by grade. [27274]

The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): There are five full-time policy staff in my Department, led by a senior civil servant, working on policy options for our nuclear deterrent. They consult and engage others, as necessary. No decisions on any replacement for Trident have been taken.

Mr. Speaker: Dr. Julian Lewis.

Mr. Prentice: I do not look like him.

The Prime Minister famously said back in May that he wanted to listen to the views of Members and I think that there should be an informed debate on this issue. Can I ask my friend on the Front Bench if those five full-timers would turn their attention to drafting a Green Paper setting out the options that the House can consider?

John Reid: Once people have done the preliminary work and I have had a chance to look at the recommendations on a number of issues, including that, I may be able to do so, but none has reached me yet. When they do, I will let my hon. Friend know of my decision.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. May I offer the Secretary of State some comfort? Despite the difficulties that the Prime Minister had with 45 minutes last year and 90 days last week, on this issue, he can count on the support of the Opposition to back him up, in the belief that Britain needs to have nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them. He will get our support even if he cannot rely on the support of his own Back Benchers.

John Reid: I am sure that that will be very helpful to me. I would point out that we had a manifesto that committed the Government to the retention of our independent, minimum nuclear deterrent. In all the many pages of the Conservative manifesto, there was no mention whatever of nuclear deterrence.

Points of Order

3.31 pm

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I would be grateful if you could offer me some guidance on how to ensure that right hon. and hon. Members do not abuse their parliamentary allowances in respect of the free postage that MPs are allowed. I have given notice to my neighbour the right hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith) that I would raise the issue of her use and potential abuse of the free House of Commons postage in her constituency of Redditch. She announced in a newspaper a few weeks ago that—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I will give the hon. Lady some guidance. This is not something that she can raise as a point of order on the Floor of the House. The Serjeant at Arms is responsible for postage and she should take the matter up with him.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are you satisfied that the Serjeant has adequate powers to deal with Members when allegations are made about this or that violation of allowances? You will realise that it puts any Officer of the House in a difficult position when they are asked to discipline or reprimand a Member. Are you satisfied that the Serjeant, who you have identified as responsible for this matter, has all the powers that he needs to ensure that there is no abuse of postage or of other allowances?

Mr. Speaker: The right hon. Gentleman knows that I should not be drawn into this argument. My opinion should not be sought at this stage on the Floor of the House. What I will say is that the House gives the Serjeant at Arms powers and if it feels that those powers are inadequate, the matter can be raised with the House of Commons Commission—and I know that the right hon. Gentleman is a very active member of it. If the House feels that more powers should be given to the Serjeant at Arms, it is up to the House to proceed as I have said, and I serve the House in this matter.
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Orders of the Day

Violent Crime Reduction Bill

As amended in Standing Committee, considered.

New Clause 9

Power to Search Further Education Students for Weapons

'After section 85A of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 (c. 13) insert—
"85B   Power to search further education students for weapons

(1)   A member of staff of an institution within the further education sector who has reasonable grounds for believing that a student at the institution may have with him or in his possessions—

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