Will the Secretary of State confirm that his account contradicts the specific assurances given by the then Foreign Secretary to my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary on 6 February 2006? It is at the very least unfortunate that both officials and Ministers overlooked the significance of the cases, not least since the issue of rendition was already highly controversial. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) had already formed his all-party group on the issue. The Secretary of State says that in retrospect it is clear to him that the transfer to Afghanistan of the two individuals should have been questioned at the time. What is his explanation for that not being done at any level and not being rediscovered until 1 December 2008?
I acknowledge the Secretary of States unreserved apology for overstating by about 1,000 the number of British detainees since 2004. Again, will he provide the House with an explanation for that? I visited the prison facilities in our area of operations with the Defence Committee in early 2004 and I acknowledge that they had been much improved since serious concerns surfaced about operations there in 2003, but in those circumstances I am astonished at the inaccuracy arising from conditions in 2004 and afterwards. Equally, my experience would lead me to accept that the figures for 2003 could only be an estimate.
Let me turn to our current operations in Afghanistan. What confidence does the Secretary of State have that some of the 254 detainees handed over to the Afghan authorities have not been mistreated or tortured? On what basis does he claim in his letter to the Chairman of the Defence Committee of 17 November 2008 that there is no legal obligation to detainees once they are transferred to another state? Does he acknowledge that a moral obligation exists? Was that not implicit in the memorandum of understanding between the USA, Australia and the UK of March 2003? Why would not that wider obligation also apply between the UK, Iraq and Afghanistan?
The statement avoids the principal public issue, which is the charge about complicity by UK forces operating in Iraq outside the Multi-national Division (South-East). That is a glaring hole and it must be addressed. I suspect that as Secretary of State he might not be inclined to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester for his dogged persistence on the issue. However, I rather suspect that, as a parliamentarian, the Secretary of State will admire my hon. Friends achievement in ensuring that the issue remains at the front of parliamentary concern. I hope that the Secretary of State will confirm that for all the difficulty that the statement brings the Government and the embarrassment at procedures that apparently undermine and sometimes disgrace our values my hon. Friend has done Parliament and our wider values proud by holding the Government to account.
This is about more than thoroughly indifferent administration. The statement has partly been prompted by the work of my hon. Friend and, not least, by the evidence produced by the former SAS trooper Ben Griffin before he was injuncted by the Government almost exactly a year ago. Let me remind the House of the gravity of the charge. Ben Griffin said:
Throughout my time in Iraq I was in no doubt that individuals detained by UKSF and handed over to our American colleagues would be tortured. During my time as member of the US/UK Task Force, three soldiers recounted to me an incident in which
they had witnessed the brutal interrogation of two detainees. Partial drowning and an electric cattle prod were used during this interrogation and this amounted to torture. It was the widely held assumption that this would be the fate of any individuals handed over to our America colleagues. My commanding officer at the time expressed his concern to the whole squadron that we were becoming the secret police of Baghdad.
How is the public interest served by the injunction when Ben Griffin had left the Army over two years earlier and had made numerous public statements on the nature of those operations in 2006, when he left, and on the role of UK forces in detaining Iraqis and other suspects? The injunction did not come until two years later. Surely, given the serious nature of his allegations and the time elapsed since his operational experience, his account should be publicly scrutinised. The Secretary of State must be prepared to answer those charges.
Exquisite detail about official and ministerial oversight concerning two men is all very well and it is appreciated, but it sits ill with simply sweeping under the carpet the apparent evidence of direct British service involvement with delivery to gross mistreatment amounting to torture involving hundreds if not thousands of people. The evidence available is that the conduct of American forces has significantly improved since Ben Griffin served in Iraq, but the country is owed an account of what happened. Nothing does more to undermine our fight against terrorism and violence than departing from the rule of law and the values that we seek to defend. That does the terrorists work for them. Is that not further cause for the Government finally to set up the comprehensive inquiry into Iraq without any further delay?
Mr. Hutton: I welcome some of the hon. Gentlemans early remarks, although I did not agree with some of the remarks towards the end of his questions. I think that with hindsight and the ability to reflect on them he might well want to say something different at some point in the future.
I want to pay tribute to all hon. Members, on both sides of the House, who have championed the issue. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of UK armed forces and HM Government as a whole operating firmly within the framework of the rule of law. These are our values, and we seek to uphold them throughout the world. We have made every effort to do so in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Let me deal with some of the specific points that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. There is no truth whatsoever in any allegation that British officials were complicit in the abuse of these two individuals. There is no evidence of abuse in relation to these two individuals and I made that very clear in my statement. I was surprised that the hon. Gentleman suggested that that was not the case. There were errors in relation to the records on the two individuals, which largely explains why the approval of the UK was not sought about their transfer in 2004. My understanding is that the records of the US authorities had those two individuals down as detained by US forces, not UK forces, and I think that largely explains the error, but it should not have happened.
The hon. Gentleman asked me specifically about errors in detainee records in Iraq. The best explanation that I can offer him, because it is the best one I have seenthat has come to meis that there was significant double counting at the time in respect of records on
detainees. We have put that right, and Permanent Joint Headquarters now maintains one central database, which is regularly updated, and we have dealt with that particular problem.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the legal position of the two detainees. I have to say that it is far from clear. I do not want to opine on the subject of the legality or otherwise of the position of those detaineesI am not in a position to do sobut I strongly welcome the review that the President of the United States recently announced about detention policies across the range of operations in which US forces are engaged. I am sure the whole House will welcome the outcome of that review.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman and I began to part company when he ended his comments with allegations that Ben Griffin has made about abuse. The hon. Gentleman gave the very strong impression that he thought that those allegations were true and correct. There is no evidence to substantiate those allegations. They have been looked at by a very senior serving British Army general, who found no evidence to support them. It is important that the point is re-emphasised; I tried to deal with it in my statement, so I was surprised that the hon. Gentleman raised it in the way he did.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the injunction against Ben Griffin as though it were some constitutional outrage. Every member of the special forces agrees a confidentiality deal when they sign up, and if the hon. Gentleman ever has the responsibility of standing at the Dispatch Box to deal with such matters he will find that that is for a very good reason: it preserves the safety and security of special forces operations, and it must not and should not be challenged in the way that the hon. Gentleman challenged it. That is a mistake and he will rue the day if that is the view he takes into government, should he be given that opportunity.
I finalise my comments with this point: we are not sweeping anything under the carpet. The hon. Gentleman implied that today we were somehow sweeping things under the carpethe used that expression. It is simply not true. We have extended an open hand and an open invitation to people to come forward and confirm those allegations. None has done so.
Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I echo the words of condolence that the Secretary of State rightly gave for those who died yesterday. I thank him for his statement and like him I sympathise with the plight of those who have to make difficult decisions in the chaos of the battlefield.
The Secretary of State has come to the House today and presented the conclusions as comprehensive. Will he guarantee to the House that every record and every piece of information held by any element of the British Government armed forces, security and secret services and so on has been scrutinised exhaustively and that this is indeed the last word on the matter? At the heart of it is our relationship of trust with the United States. Does he agree that the new Administration in America now acknowledge that things happened in the past that should not have happened, which they are defining as torture, for example, whereas the previous Administration denied that emphatically? Were not most of the assurances on which we are relying in the account the Secretary of State has given us today in fact assurances given by the previous Administration?
If the memorandum of understanding between us and America, on which we are relying, was as strong as the Secretary of State invites us to believe, how was it so easily pushed to one side in this specific case? Did the British Government really buy the explanation that the US, with hundreds of thousands of personnel out there in its hunt for al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq, did not have a single person in the country who could speak the relevant Pakistani language, and that that amounted to an adequate reason to move the detainees elsewhere? Have we explicitly asked the Americans whether anybody handed over was at any point tortured or water-boarded? What is our policy for our personnel? Are British personnel explicitly told not to be complicit in abduction, rendition or torture?
Perhaps the most disturbing thing in the statement was the fact that information was available and made available to the then Foreign and Home Secretaries, so in a sense it was missed at the time. Were the lawyers asleep on the job? Did they not come back later and give legal advice? As the temperature on the issue rose, with allegations of extraordinary rendition and the use of Diego Garcia for flights, did no official revisit the information that had been given to Ministers and draw their attention explicitly to it?
My final point relates to the allegations made a year ago by Ben Griffin. Looking closely at what he said, we see that he was talking about joint operations, with UK and US troops working alongside each other. In the statement today, the Secretary of State gave a detailed account about people who were detained by the British, but later in his statement he said that, in the new arrangements that have existed since 1 January, we have probed with America their arrangements for treating people captured with assistance from UK troops. I ask myself whether there were instances when UK troops actually captured people but from the very word go they were deemed to be held by the Americans. I wonder whether the Secretary of State can reassure me that that is a distinction that does not really exist, because it seems to me that Ben Griffins allegation may be slightly different from the explanation that the right hon. Gentleman has given today.
These are very serious issues. The statement raises almost as many questions as it answers. The Secretary of State took the Conservative spokesman to task, saying that the hon. Gentleman might come to rue some of the things he said. I should like the Secretary of State to reassure the House that he is absolutely confident that nothing will come to light subsequently, either from more whistleblowers or investigative journalists, that might cause him or any other Minister in the future to have to come back to the Dispatch Box and acknowledge that we have not had as comprehensive a version of the truth today as he might like to think.
I reassure the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends that we have looked in very great detail into the records of detention arising in both Iraq and Afghanistan that involve UK armed forces in whatever category and in
whatever role. I believe, because we spent a lot of time on it before I came to the House today, that the review is as comprehensive and as thorough as it can possibly be.
On the hon. Gentlemans points about the two Lashkar-e-Taiba detainees, I have tried to explain the circumstances of that case and the error in the way that the records were maintained that gave rise to the failure to consult the UK properly. I do not really have anything further to add, other than to say again that I bitterly regret the mistakes that were made; in retrospect, things should have been done differently.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the operational framework for UK armed forces. It is made absolutely clear that UK armed forces will not participate in operations where there is a danger or a risk of inhuman, degrading or cruel treatment for individuals. We operate to a very high standard. It is right that we do so, because as I said earlier those values define the nature of our country, and our armed forces are part of that and reflect it. We have always stood on the side of human rights and freedom and we shall continue to do that.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I appreciate the significance of the statement and the interest of Members, but the main business of the House is still to follow, so I ask for brief supplementary questions and a concise response.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, which is helpful. Can he confirm whether, when the two Lashkar-e-Taiba people were handed over, British forces knew or suspected that they would be held anywhere other than Iraq? Can he confirm that they were not subjected to water-boarding, because our view is very different to that of the Americans? Can he let us know whether we received any intelligence or information from the interrogation of those suspects in Afghanistan?
Mr. Hutton: I can confirm that we have had no evidence of abuse in the treatment of the two individuals. I understand the position to be that we had no information at the time they were detained that they would subsequently be sent to Afghanistan.
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Is it the case that, in a number of operations, a small number of US soldiers are attached to British forces, so that subsequent detainees are classified as US detainees from the start? I hope that the Secretary of State will understand that, among the all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition, there is great disappointment that such statements have to be made.
I began some years ago to make a number of very serious allegations that Diego Garcia had been used for rendition, that armed services were being dragged into that, and that the security services had facilitated rendition. All those allegations were vigorously denied, and all of them have been confirmed in three ministerial statements over the past year and by a High Court judge. Given that all those assurances were baseless, I hope that he can understand that we have less confidence than we did in assurances being made now. Will the Government now agree to instigate a more comprehensive inquiry to bring closure to this sad and sorry business?
Mr. Hutton: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the honourable and distinguished role that he has played in highlighting these issues, and I have no issue in that regard at all. He raises an important point that goes to the heart of the matter. His question raises a concern about the accuracy of the records that we have been reviewing. I remind him that the two individuals who are in focus were classified in the records as detained by US forces and that that came to light because of the review of all the records where UK and US forces worked together in joint operations. I understand what he says, and I want to reassure him, as far as I am able today, that this has been a thorough and comprehensive review that has got right to the heart of the issue.
Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who caused the awful deaths of our soldiers, which increased by four this week, do not differentiate between various Ferengi? We are all in the same group of alien invaders to their country. One groupAmerica, under Bushwas certainly responsible for torture, with water-boarding and other methods, and that deep sense of grievance is the recruiting sergeant for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Should not we in this country embark on a new policy? That is happening in America, which is turning its back on the previous policy of Bush and seeking a new peace strategy that will be based on talks with the enemy. Is it not time that we also embarked on a peace strategy?
Mr. Hutton: I do not accept my hon. Friends characterisation of coalition forces as alien invaders. They are working under the clear authority of a succession of UN Security Council resolutions and have operated for many years in Iraq under the explicit authority of a UN Security Council resolution. Our approach in Afghanistan does not just involve the use of military means, but I do not believe that it will succeed without the use of military means. There is a chronic lack of security in Afghanistan, and we need to correct that, but we are pursuing a range of strategies in Afghanistan to bring about what he and I both want: an end to hostilities and a resumption of peace and democracy in that country.
David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): I commend the Secretary of State for coming to the House and facing this issue todayhe did the right thing in doing sobut he is handicapped by the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) said, this is the latest in a series of issues where the Government have been less than straightforward. With Diego Garcia, the Intelligence and Security Committee was given information that turned out to be wrong. The ISC raised the Gambian issue, where the rules were broken quite clearly. In the Binyam Mohamed case, the ISC was not given the 42 documents until very recently and not when it was said that that would happen. A dispassionate observer would think that there are one of three explanations. First, the Government are deliberately turning a blind eye. I hope that that is not true. Secondly, possibly, the covert agencies are using deniability to operate outside the law. We hope that that is not true. Thirdly, there is a reprehensible lack of control of our agencies in their operations abroad.