Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con):
Let me begin by echoing the Solicitor-General's expressions of sympathy for the family of Sergeant Roberts, and indeed for that of Mr. Zaher, in this tragic series of
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events. I thank the Solicitor-General for early sight of his statementall the more because the first indication I had that the statement would be made was in an e-mail timed at 1.14 this morning, which rather suggests that the Attorney-General and his Department were left a little in the dark by the Government's business managers on how today's business would be conducted.
The Solicitor-General's statement, and the CPS report that accompanied it, were extremely thorough, illuminating and helpful in explaining what happened. I am entirely satisfied that the Attorney-General has acted completely properly in this matter. In the light of that, I hope that the Solicitor-General will take in good part the points that I think need to be raised.
Does the Solicitor-General agree that what emerges most clearly from the CPS report, after two lengthy investigations of the matterone through Army Legal Services and the SIB between 2003 and 2004, and the second by the police and the CPSis that the original conclusion and assessment by the first SIB report and the commanding officer was, in fact, entirely correct? This was an incident in which soldiers acted to protect a comrade, Sergeant Roberts, who was under attack from Mr. Zaher. The incident took place in difficult circumstances and with tragic consequences, but no one could possibly say that there was any imputation of criminality. In that context, it is perhaps a little unfortunate that as lawyers we must resort to the expression "insufficient evidence to prosecute". As the Solicitor-General may agree, on the facts given it is difficult to see that this was anything other than a tragic series of events initiated by Mr. Zaher's behaviour.
I am glad that the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General have acknowledged concern about the length of time that this matter has taken. Part of ita longer periodwas during the time in which the Attorney-General was seized of the matter, but I accept that it was an investigation in difficult circumstances. I hope that the Solicitor-General can provide some reassurance that he is satisfied that the police investigation was conducted as expeditiously as possible.
Does the Solicitor-General agree that what we should strive for in cases such as this is prompt and thorough investigation by the SIB, through the APA, when the specialist nature of its skills can properly reflect the extremely challenging environment in which soldiers are operating, in what in this instance was a combat zone during the initial stages of hostilities in Iraq? May we be reassured that the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General are satisfied that the new structures that they have established will work to enable the SIB and the APA to provide an efficient and effective service?
The Solicitor-General may agree with me that it is clear that there were inconsistencies in the approach initially, which left the Army chain of command in considerable difficulty over what line to adopt. What we ought, and hope, to see in future is a fairly seamless process whereby such matters can be dealt with in the military sphere, and intervention by the Attorney-General and the police is very rarely needed.
I realise that this may fall a little outside the Solicitor-General's province, but it is pretty plain from the CPS report that the disquiet that has been expressed about
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the circumstances in which the troops found themselves at the time must remain in question. The use of tank crews in a semi-infantry role to carry out what amounted to a form of crowd control, at a time when they were engaged in intense hostilitiesand had been so very recentlyand with some equipment that was described in the CPS report as totally unsuitable for the circumstances in which they found themselveswe also know that body armour was deficient in the case of Sergeant Robertsmust give rise to anxieties. I very much hope that the Solicitor-General will be able to communicate those anxieties to his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and that we may be able to hear more from them about that aspect of the matter in due course.
The Solicitor-General: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has responded, and particularly for his comments about the "thorough, illuminating and helpful" CPS report and his comment that the Attorney-General had acted properly throughout. He has indeed.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this was a tragic series of events. He asked whether the original conclusion was correct. That is so, in the sense that the conclusion has been the same from the start, but conclusions should be reached on the basis of a full and proper investigation of the evidence. That is the way in which we should do it in this country, and that is the way in which our armed forces seek to operate. That is why, when questions were raised about the way in which this case had proceeded, it was necessary for the matter to be dealt with by the CPS and the Metropolitan police. Now, no one can argue that there was not a full and proper investigation, as indeed there was. It is in the interests of everyone, including the military, that such incidents are fairly and properly investigated and that our armed forces are clearly seen to be subject to the rule of law. Nothing could be more damaging to the reputation of our armed forces, and more likely to provoke hostility towards them, than the suggestion that they can get away with criminal acts of violence against civilians with impunity and without full and proper investigations.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the thoroughness of SIB investigations and whether the Attorney-General and I were satisfied that the procedures now being introduced were adequate to ensure proper investigation. The key change is that in future the prosecutors in serious cases will be involved from an early stage. That will enable them to give advice and guidance to the SIB about what evidence needs to be collected and what procedures are necessary, so thatwe hopeinvestigations will proceed much more effectively in future. We are satisfied that those improvements are very important. In addition, the report on the SIB by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, which is due later this year, will provide important guidance on what improvement the SIB needs to make internally.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the delays. They are indeed regrettable. There were clearly differences of view in Army Legal Services: our lawyers, quite honestly, had formed different opinions. The Army chain of command was therefore subject to a degree of different advice, which is regrettable.
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The Metropolitan police investigation was obviously hampered by the circumstances in Iraq. A particular difficulty was that the Metropolitan police had to secure the confidence of Mr. Zaher's family in order to have access to his body and conduct an autopsy. That took some time. We did not get the autopsy resultsin final form, at leastuntil February. In March, Treasury counsel offered an opinion to the CPS, which was then able to inform us of its final conclusion.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this tragic series of events has been fully investigated and that the soldiers involved can move on, knowing that their position has been clearly set out and that there are no circumstances in which anyone could argue that they should be prosecuted.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The whole House will join the Solicitor-General and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) in expressing sympathy to Sergeant Steven Roberts' wife, Mrs. Samantha Roberts, his mother and the rest of the family, and, indeed, to the family of Mr. Zaher. As we all know, it has taken the three years and a month that has passed since those tragic deathsit is almost three years to the day since Sergeant Roberts' funeralto resolve this issue. However, I welcome the fact that a clear conclusion has now been reached. I agree with the Solicitor-General that it is the right one and that it should put an end to this terrible period of uncertainty.
I, too, recognise that in investigating these events and the possibility of bringing criminal proceedings in the complicated and difficult circumstances that surrounded the outset of this conflict, it would have been very unfair to judge that these soldiers, in doing what they thought they were duty bound to doto support their colleaguesshould be prosecuted in the criminal courts. They will be hugely relieved, as will their colleagues serving in Iraq and elsewhere. We pay tribute to the work that they do, usually without fear for themselves, and their willingness to take risks.
In the light of this experience, the Armed Forces Bill and other related matters, are the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General satisfied that such a delaya year and a quarter was spent on the internal investigation and the rest on an external civilian investigationwill not happen again in any foreseeable circumstances? That must be the major lesson for all concerned to learn. Secondly, like the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, I was slightly concerned by the Attorney-General's use of the phrase "insufficient evidence to prosecute". Were the same two tests that would normally be applied in any civilian casewhether there was a more than 50 per cent. chance of conviction, and whether it was in the public interest to proceedapplied in this case? I assume that they were, and that that is therefore the end of the matter.
Thirdly, are we sure that the boundary between military investigation by the armed services' legal authorities and civilian investigation is now clear, both at home and abroad? The Defence Minister, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram)he is in his placeknows that the Deepcut investigation raised the same issues: who should investigate and who should decide on prosecution? Will there be a speedy process to decide who investigates, in order to give maximum confidence?
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My final point links to one mentioned by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. On the responsibilities of the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General, are they seized of issues relating to a duty on the British Army and its management to ensure that service personnel go into the front line properly equipped? Is there such a duty of care, and will it always be fulfilled by ensuring that personnel have the kit, equipment, clothing and other materiel to allow them to do their duty safely and properly?