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Mr. Brazier: The Secretary of State has made the point that we are not allowed under the sub judice rule to comment on a particular case, although the investigation currently being carried out in respect of General Wall has not yet resulted in charges, so we could comment on that. The Secretary of State must accept—this is not just me speaking but a number of distinguished and gallant Members of another place—that the provision to which he refers takes us on to entirely new ground. For the first time, commanding officers can in principle be charged for errors of omission which would not have been offences under military law.

Mr. Howarth: I am sure that the House is grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention.

Lying behind recent cases has been the perception—we all know the importance of perception, and my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) made that clear—that if it is not the European Court of Human Rights, it is the International Criminal Court that is exerting a pressure. Whether the Secretary of State likes it or not, that is the impression that is being created. It is a serious matter. My view is that it has been wrong that we in the United Kingdom, and particularly we in this Parliament, have been obliged to change the regulations by which our armed forces are governed to meet the requirements of a court.

I see that the Secretary of State shakes his head. The Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000 was directly the result of a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. One of the reasons why we have a tri-service Bill, if I might tell the Secretary of State why he is introducing
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the Bill, is because there have been a number of Acts since 1955 and 1957—separate services Acts—arising directly out of decisions made by the European Court of Human Rights, to which the House has felt obliged to respond.

I note that the Secretary of State wishes to intervene. As long as his hon. Friend the Minister does not keep tapping his watch at me, I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman.

John Reid: I am merely responding to the specific allegations about the specific case. It might as well be argued that the Geneva conventions and protocols of 1957 led to the charges against Colonel Mendonca and his men. It is precisely the concept of inhumane treatment introduced under the 1957 Geneva protocols, brought into law by the then Conservative Government, that forms the legal basis that led to incorporation under the later ICC legislation. That puts in context the sort of perceptions that are being encouraged by misleading statements in this area. I do not deny that there is a perception, but part of that perception is being fuelled and encouraged by those who are making misleading statements, inadvertently or otherwise, about the nature of specific charges being brought against specific people.

Mr. Howarth: Clearly, these charges are being brought under English law. Charges cannot be brought in any other way in an English court. The question still arises whether they would have been brought had it not been for the existence of the ICC.

The Secretary of State will be aware that in a debate in the other place on 14 July a number of significant contributions were made. I draw the Secretary of State's attention to the contribution of Lord Campbell of Alloway, who spent five years in Colditz. He is not a man who is unfamiliar with military matters. He drew attention to a letter that had been sent by the Adjutant-General on 24 March to "CGS and CIC Land" in respect of what I think was Trooper Williams' case. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury referred to it and it is worth putting it on the record again. The Adjutant-General wrote:

I submit that it is not a threat to the military justice system; it is a threat to our armed forces. They are being treated in a fashion where they are being used effectively as guinea pigs to satisfy a demand for what amounts to a pretty rough justice. In that letter, one of the most senior generals in the British Army said that we were under pressure to bring prosecutions. That is not acceptable.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am very fond of the hon. Gentleman, who is a former member of the Defence Committee. However, he is clearly out of step with his Front Bench team, as a consensual mood of politics is supposed to prevail. The Secretary of State clearly explained the position, so efforts to perpetuate anti-Euro myths will not do anything to help the British armed forces.

Mr. Howarth: It has nothing to do with anti-Euro myths or with anything else. Time is short, and I have made that point.
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The hon. Members for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) both called for independent investigations. The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr allied himself to human rights lawyers, which was brave of him.

Several hon. Members have referred to written evidence from the Judge Advocate General to the Constitutional Affairs Committee, in which he said:

He continued:

I do not think that any of us could better encapsulate the importance and relevance of a separate military system. Broadly speaking, we support the thrust of the Bill, which is why we shall not oppose it on Second Reading. However, we have a number of reservations. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring made it clear that we are concerned about the ramifications for the authority of commanding officers. It is not as though we are discussing these things in a rarefied academic forum. We are doing so against a backdrop of challenges that face our armed forces day in, day out as they make life and death decisions, and I make no apology for repeating that to the Secretary of State. A group of soldiers on patrol do not know whether the man with his hand in the air is holding a grenade or a tomato. We must give our men the benefit of the doubt in those circumstances, because if we do not do so we will destroy the very system in which we take great pride.

There is genuine concern about such matters, which I hope the Committee will be able to address. The two cases in the civilian courts that have been mentioned—the Trooper Williams case and the case involving seven members of 3 Para—both collapsed. It was disgraceful that a lawyer went to Iraq to trawl for Iraqis, who were basically bounty hunters collecting £100 a day from the British taxpayer to denounce our armed forces. That is unacceptable, and I believe the Iraqi Government should apologise for the disgraceful action of those Iraqis, who did nothing to promote the cause of Iraq among the British people. The problems highlighted by those cases must be addressed.

A few final points—first, the Bill makes no reference to rules of engagements, which are of concern to us all. There ought to be some provision for those. Secondly, we must have an annual review, for the reasons that I
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outlined. There is common consent right across the House that annual review is essential. Thirdly, I hope that the Bill is not a prelude to some sort of Canadian-style merger of all three services. The Secretary of State shakes his head—I take great encouragement from that. One of the strengths of our system is the individual ethos of each service. We are trying to harness and retain the individual ethos within a more procedurally efficient system.

The Bill will be committed to a Select Committee. I am sorry that that will conclude on 27 April. It is a complex Bill, but we have a month longer than was originally offered, so that, at least, is encouraging.

In conclusion, I happened to be in Basra the night that two members of the British armed forces were rescued. I spoke to Brigadier Lorimer the following night, and I know the Secretary of State had phoned to congratulate him on an outstanding operation. The dramatic pictures of those Coldstream Guardsmen getting out of those Warriors on fire went around the world. A couple of days later I happened to be in al-Udeid in Qatar, which is a US airbase where Britain has a significant presence. I was sitting in the canteen watching that on CNN, and the sheer amazement of the American servicemen and women that our armed forces had put up with that level of provocation without a shot being fired said a vast amount about the self-restraint and self-discipline of our armed forces. In that, we should take great pride. It is very important that in the Bill we do nothing that will undermine the power of commanding officers and the bond between commanding officers and their men which led to that self-restraint and self-discipline, which are admired throughout the world.

9.41 pm

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