The Solicitor-General: There was, regrettably, an allegation of improper behaviour. The independent Iraqi civilian who made some allegations put forward a version of events that did not include the shooting of Sergeant Roberts, but did suggest that the behaviour of the troopers involved had not been appropriate. That was discovered at a later stage, but it is clear that perceptions might have arisen after an unarmed civilian had been shot. It is right that when that occurs, the British Army should protect itself by having a proper, full and thorough investigation so that it can say that it acted lawfully and properly, that it is not above the law and that it does things the right way. To suggest that there should not have been a full investigation is just plain wrong and it would undermine the very basis on which our Army claims to act. It is right and appropriate that there should have been a full investigation. It was carried out, and those soldiers can now say that it was done and they were cleared.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): In my hon. and learned Friend's statement he said that there were "inconsistencies" in the accounts provided by the soldiers. Does he recognise that there are always inconsistencies in statements given by witnesses? If there are no inconsistencies, the witnesses are deemed to have colluded before giving their evidence. It also rankles with some of us that after an extensive inquiry the statement concludes that there is "insufficient evidence" to institute criminal proceedings in this case. We have the evidencesurely it shows that there is no case to answer.
The Solicitor-General: It is the case that there is insufficient evidence and therefore there is no case to answer. I am afraid that lawyers tend to use legal terminology, and the public have a right to know that the conclusion is that there is not a case to be answered in the criminal courts. My hon. Friend mentioned inconsistencies. The incident took place in the early stages of the armed conflict in Iraq and soldiers were clearly under a great deal of stress. The circumstances were confusing, including the fact that the machine gun was set to fire at a greater distance than events required. There were a series of factors that led to an element of confusion and, therefore, it is not unlikely that accounts should display inconsistencies. Anyone who has experience of hearing witnesses give evidence in court will know that there are often honest inconsistencies.
Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): As a former soldier, I share in the tributes paid to our servicemen and women who represent our country abroad. They do a difficult job. I also share the thoughts for the families who face pressures when servicemen or women are abroad.
As everybody is aware, Sergeant Roberts' death took place five days into the conflict on 24 March 2003, so there is a two-month difference. Does the Solicitor-General agree that two months was far too long to draw out the basic facts of the case and provide them to the widow in those
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tragic circumstances? Some people have said that the reason for the delay and for allowing the argument about enhanced body armour to run in the media was to cover up the fact that it was a case of friendly fire. There are many lessons to be learned about improving communications to stop rumours spreading, especially in the British press, which do not help the morale of the troops and do not help us in communicating exactly what happened.
The Solicitor-General: It is important that families are given as much information as is reasonable as early as possible and that the information is accurate, which means that there must be some degree of investigation of it. We have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) that sometimes there are inconsistencies in statements and all sorts of issues arise, especially in a conflict zone. There were difficulties in returning to the site to gather forensic evidence. I am sorry that Mrs. Roberts had to wait so long for a description of what had happened to her husband. That is obviously distressing, but it is important that when a description is given it is as accurate as possible, which requires investigation and that requires time. It would have been even worse, however, if Mrs. Roberts had been given one explanation and then over time, as new evidence emerged, it was changed time and again. I suspect that that would lead to even greater distress.
The media do not have to be accurate when they report things. The Government and the Ministry of Defence at least try to be as accurate as we reasonably can in the information we give. It is important that time is taken. The media want the story tomorrow, but the Government have to get the full story out as accurately as possible, which may take a bit more time and in some cases, such as this one, a substantial degree of extra time.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): I had the privilege of visiting Iraq in June 2003 as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. During our time there, I spent nearly 24 hours with the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment. I ate with the soldiers, talked to them and went on patrol with them in a Challenger tank. The point they made about Sergeant Roberts' death was that he did not have kevlar; I understand that he had in fact been given kevlar but asked to give it to another soldier. They clearly believe that the lack of that protection led to his death. Should not the Government look into whether the forces should have a duty of care to ensure that the basic safety equipment required for front-line duties is actually provided? The family of Sergeant Roberts could then have taken a case against the services for their failure to protect his life. He gave his life for his country.
: The Ministry of Defence always has to be risk-aware and, where it can, provide the appropriate equipment, but there is no such thing as a risk-free environment, and certainly not in Iraq; our soldiers and other service persons run risks when they are on active service. My earlier comment that the MOD has looked at the case and sought to learn lessons is appropriate. The MOD will seek to provide appropriate equipment and to ensure that soldiers have whatever protection can reasonably be given, but no circumstances, not least in Iraq, are without some degree of risk.
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