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Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

John Reid: I will give way in a second.

We have robust rules of engagement and if our people use lethal force in conflict, of course it will not automatically result in a police investigation, still less a criminal prosecution. Equally, where there is a credible allegation or suspicion of a serious offence, there will be an investigation, almost certainly by the service police—not civilian police but service police—but an investigation does not mean that a prosecution will follow. Therefore, the maintenance of standards and the investigation of credible allegations—carried out by independent investigation and independent prosecuting authorities, both of which exist within the military
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system—are a necessary part of maintaining the standards for which we are so proud of our armed forces.

This is not a case of one side arguing that no standards should be maintained and no allegations, however serious, investigated, and the other side saying that every allegation should be investigated—or even that every credible allegation should be investigated, leading to a prosecution. If someone wants evidence of that fact they need only look at the example of our latest theatre of operations, in Iraq. From memory, I think that some 80,000 soldiers and other servicemen and women have gone through Iraq in the various deployments, and among those some 183 cases have been investigated as involving allegations above the threshold of credibility. Of those cases, 20-odd have been pursued, and some five, I think, have come to trial. That is a commendation not only of the probity with which we conduct such matters, but of the high standards maintained by the British armed forces, even in the most difficult circumstances.

I understand how much more difficult that is now, in what we call an asymmetrical battlefield. Those standards were difficult enough to maintain when the enemy whom we were fighting had some respect for international conventions such as the Geneva convention, for the norms of warfare that civilised countries have adopted, and for the moral conventions and constraints on action, especially action against innocent civilians. How much more difficult it is for our servicemen and women to maintain them when the enemy does not respect those conventions, or feel constrained by any degree of morality. I understand that, and I hope that everyone in the House, and all those who write commentaries outside, do too—but it is not a reason for abandoning the standards, the probity and the discipline of British forces, which have made them famous. Even in such circumstances, we will maintain those standards as well as we have always done.

Several hon. Members rose—

John Reid: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), because he indicated that he wanted to intervene some time ago, but was courteous enough to let me finish my point.

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to the Secretary of State, and I am sure that everybody appreciates the assurances with which he is trying to soothe our concerns. However, he has been visiting our forces all around the world, and I have visited a number of them, both in my own constituency and elsewhere. Surely troops have mentioned to him that there is now a real fear that there is a possibility of men being second-guessed in the most difficult circumstances that they can face—or has he come away with the impression that there are no genuine concerns out there?

John Reid: Those issues have been raised with me, but I must tell the hon. Gentleman honestly that they have been raised mainly by soldiers asking me about press reports in which commentators, many of whom have never been near a battlefield, or even gone two rounds with a revolving door, far less been involved in combat,
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have pompously sounded off on that subject—although I am not, of course, saying that the Opposition Members here today are in that position. Such commentators accuse chiefs of staff with impeccable courageous credentials of being other than courageous. Of course those reports are read by soldiers and other servicemen and women, and of course I regret that.

Incidentally, I have also seen that when the picture is painted here of the battlefield in places such as Iraq, and of the consequences and the outcomes of what our servicemen and women are struggling for, it is an unbalanced picture. This morning the BBC said that the fact that 69 per cent. of people in Iraq were looking forward to a better future appeared to suggest that some of the reporting and descriptions of what was going on there had been wide of the mark. I notice that the BBC did not add to the words "reporting and descriptions" the words "by the BBC".

Of course I regret the comments that have been mentioned, and of course they are important; I do not blame hon. Gentlemen for raising them. However, the intention of the Bill is to strengthen and protect our military justice system by modernising and rendering it more effective in difficult circumstances, in relation to the chain of command. The intention is not to hand it over to civilian judgment. Indeed, the case of Trooper Williams, which I cited and which has caused concern in both Houses of Parliament and outside, would be far less likely to occur after these changes.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): With regard to certain serious offences committed within the United Kingdom—for instance, manslaughter—the civilian authorities have primacy in investigation and exclusive jurisdiction over prosecution and trial in civilian courts. Will the Bill change that?

John Reid: No, it will make no difference. It is possible at the moment for manslaughter to be laid as a charge under military law, and that will not change.

Legitimate concern is different from some of the over-dramatised reports that we read about the very few trials   arising from operations in Iraq. We have not had    wholesale investigations leading to wholesale prosecutions. As I said earlier, Defence Ministers have no power over, authority in, responsibility for or even oversight of the laying of charges or the prosecution of cases. Those are matters for the independent service prosecuting authorities, which decide whether a prosecution is warranted in any case referred to them. Hon. Members can form their own opinions about whether we share some of the same frustrations that people who are not in government feel as we regard certain developments, but it is proper—in a civilised, democratic society—for there be a separation between the ministerial code for running the armed forces, in conjunction with the chain of command, and the investigatory and prosecution authorities, which are naturally and properly independent. That is one of the factors that separate a democracy from a dictatorship.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentions the proper independence of the armed forces investigatory
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authorities. Will he re-examine the recommendation from the Defence Committee to introduce a system of independent oversight of investigations by the armed forces, because many families—and not only the Deepcut families, but those from other barracks—are concerned about the way in which the investigations were undertaken?

John Reid: In the case of Deepcut, we have appointed an independent inquiry and investigation, headed by the well known and well qualified QC, Nicholas Blake. In general, we have given serious consideration to the idea of an external, independent—by which, I take it, my hon. Friend means mostly civilian—complaints tribunal. I do not believe that that is appropriate, but I will have something to say about an independent element for the complaints procedure, which will go some way towards meeting the requests of the Defence Committee.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD) rose—

John Reid: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but then I must make some headway.

Lembit Öpik: My question relates directly to Deepcut. The Bill is the perfect opportunity to try to ensure that the legion errors made in investigating the still mysterious deaths of four young recruits at Deepcut barracks between 1995 and 2002 cannot happen again. I would have expected the Government to ensure that the concerns of parents and relatives and concern for the truth had been considered in phrasing the Bill. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that there has been enormous resistance to sharing information about the deaths at Deepcut army barracks, and will he outline how the Bill might help to ensure that parents such as Des and Doreen James will never have to face a decade of uncertainty about what happened to their children while they were being trained for Army service?

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