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House of Commons

Monday 1 June 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Human Rights Legislation

1. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): What his policy is on the application of human rights legislation to service personnel on the battlefield. [277533]

3. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What guidance he issues to armed forces personnel on operations on their obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998. [277535]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): We are strongly committed to protecting the human rights of our armed forces. However, the implications of the recent Court of Appeal judgment in the case arising from the tragic death of Private Jason Smith could open the door to routine legal challenges against the Ministry of Defence to decisions made by service personnel entrusted with the conduct of operations. The Chief of the Defence Staff has made these concerns clear in his own message to the armed forces. I am urgently considering the matter, and will decide shortly whether we need to appeal the decision to the House of Lords.

Mr. Burns: What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the number of retrospective claims that may be brought against the Department in the light of the recent Court of Appeal judgment?

Mr. Hutton: I have not made any assessment of that; it is not clear to me that the judgment would have retrospective effect. That would have to be examined initially as part of the careful consideration that lawyers in the Ministry need to give the judgment. However, my real concern is whether we can stand aside and see bold decision making by battlefield commanders inhibited by anxiety about a legal process over which they will have no say and no control. Those are very serious matters. We have a clear duty of care to our soldiers, sailors and airmen, which we intend to discharge fully, but the case raises a set of issues that are complicated and fundamental. That is why it is right that—with your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of others—we take time to consider it carefully.

Mr. Robathan: I am sure that the House wishes to send its condolences to Jason Smith’s family; it is a tragic case. However, although we wish the Government well, I fear that the problem is one of the Government’s own making, through their human rights legislation. There is no greater breach of human rights than being shot on the battlefield—and that is what we expect our soldiers to go out and risk. What exactly are the Government planning to do, beyond appeal? If the law stands, will not the Government have to change it to rectify the situation?

Mr. Hutton: I do not want to indulge in hypotheticals, but I cannot resist the temptation. If we were to lose the appeal and the current interpretation of the law were confirmed, it would pose us a serious problem, which would have to be addressed. I personally do not believe
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that the framers of the European convention had it in mind when it was drafted that it would ever apply to soldiers in a battlefield situation. If I am wrong, and if the House of Lords took a different decision if we appealed, Ministers would have to consider seriously the position that would then arise.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): This is a very serious matter, and I urge the Secretary of State to consider wisely and make an appeal as necessary. We are witnessing the possibility of sending serving soldiers into battle with no guns or other weapons, and with their hands tied behind their backs. It is an impossible situation—unless we can enforce human rights codes on the opposition, such as Hezbollah or the Taliban; that would be a step in the right direction. In the meantime we must treat the matter seriously and regard it as a matter of high principle for the Government, and ensure that our soldiers have the proper protection that they need when going to war on our behalf.

Mr. Hutton: I have a lot of sympathy with my hon. Friend’s point. When our troops are committed to battle, the public want and expect only one thing: that they can do everything they need to do to win the battles that they are fighting. Anything that makes it harder to win the fights that they are in must be resisted strongly. Without allowing my hon. Friend to draw me any further, I can say that we are still examining the judgment carefully, and we will decide shortly whether to appeal.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I note from the press that companies such Capita, Manpower and Serco are forming a disorderly queue to get the plum £100 million contract for outsourced recruitment of people into our forces. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that, given their lack of knowledge of service life, that contract will not be extended to promote the ideas of human rights legislation in a battlefield context, about which they know equally little?

Mr. Hutton: I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting that point into this exchange. There is no question of private contractors being employed in a battlefield environment, so I am not sure whether my hon. Friend’s concerns are likely to materialise.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Can the Secretary of State confirm that military lawyers and senior commanders have already started work fully to appreciate the tactical and strategic implications, should the judgment pass into law?

Mr. Hutton: Yes.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I would like to express the condolences of the Opposition to the family of Private Smith, and also to the families of those who have fallen since we last met. They gave their young lives in the service of our country, and their sacrifice must never be forgotten. The Minister of State has said that the Court of Appeal’s judgment of 19 May has serious implications for our ability to conduct military operations overseas. Given the Secretary of State’s belated fears for operational effectiveness, could
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he say what representations his predecessors made when his Government were falling over themselves to incorporate the European convention on human rights into the Human Rights Act?

Mr. Hutton: I think that human rights legislation is important. It has helped to embed a human rights culture in the United Kingdom and in our judiciary, which is very important. With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that the solution to the problem is to repeal the Human Rights Act. The European convention was always justiciable through the route of the European Court of Human Rights, so that would be a false path to tread. The problem has arisen because of subsequent interpretations of the parameters of the convention, not because of the Human Rights Act. The difficulty for us all in this House is that when we start down a road with a clear understanding of where we think the parameters lie, but then find that someone has moved those parameters, that poses a set of challenges about judgments that we may have to make in the House at some point in the future. None the less, that is the right way to see the problem—not to try, as the hon. Gentleman has, to put the blame on this Government, who rightly took the step of enacting the convention in the Human Rights Act.


2. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): What steps he is taking to protect shipping around the horn of Africa from piracy. [277534]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The UK takes the protection of merchant shipping very seriously, and many personnel, both in the UK and overseas, are engaged in activities relating to the suppression of piracy around the horn of Africa. This includes the provision of command and control functions for both UK and international military vessels. We are working with the UK shipping industry, other Departments and international partners to co-ordinate, educate and support merchant shipping in the region.

Mark Pritchard: With the Santa Maria in 1961, the Achille Lauro in 1985, the attempted hijacking of the Seabourn Spirit in 2005 and the attempted hijackings of other cruise ships in the past few weeks, how confident is the Minister that the British travelling public, who form the vast majority of cruise ship passengers, are safe off the horn of Africa? Obviously we are talking about pirates now, but they could well graduate from commercial ships to cruise ships.

Mr. Ainsworth: There has been a big increase in the number of patrols: there are not only those run by the European Union; many other nations have also been participating. Even though most of those other nations are not prepared to fall under the command of others, they are more than happy to co-operate and ensure that what is being done is properly co-ordinated and therefore most effective. There is also a big operation involving the exchange of information from the United Kingdom in Northwood to ensure that we can pass information between nations safely and securely, so as best to attack
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the problem of piracy. Piracy is a real problem around the horn of Africa, but it will not be solved entirely in the maritime area.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend tell us what he knows about the involvement of the Kenyan armed forces in the work of defeating piracy in the horn of Africa? I was in Kenya last October and many parliamentarians there were concerned about the situation, so I wonder where we stand now.

Mr. Ainsworth: We should be enormously grateful to the Kenyan Government for the assistance that they have been giving us and for being prepared, in some circumstances, to bring those accused of piracy to justice in the Kenyan legal system. Kenya is directly affected by piracy, which attacks trade to Kenya. Indeed, a lot of the World Food Programme supplies to parts of Somalia come through Kenya; those ships have been targeted and are at risk too.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Increasing numbers of ransoms are being paid, and the pirates are now investing that money in better equipment and better weaponry. Does the Minister share my concern that if the problem is not nipped in the bud, the situation will escalate to the extent that many more people may be killed?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am sorry to say that it is a bit late to nip the problem in the bud as the hon. Gentleman suggests. It has been going on for some time now, and the amount of activity and the preparedness of the pirates to go further out to sea to attack vessels—right out into the Indian ocean, for example—make it extremely difficult to offer full protection over such vast areas of sea. The reactions of the international shipping organisations need to be properly thought through. Their governance of their ships, and their preparedness to co-operate in the channelling of shipping that now takes place, and to accept our advice, ought to reduce the problem. We believe that this activity has led to an increase in the number of unsuccessful attacks, but in the past those organisations have been prepared to offer ransoms, which are hugely attractive to the individuals involved. It is hard to put in place sufficient deterrents to counteract the attraction of such large amounts of money.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that if the Royal Navy comes under armed attack from pirates, it is entitled to use lethal force immediately? Will he also confirm that if the Royal Navy captures armed pirates, there is no longer any risk of their claiming asylum, and that they will instead be handed over to the nearest appropriate jurisdiction?

Mr. Ainsworth: We have looked into that question, and made sure that the Royal Navy has rules of engagement sufficient for the tasks that we ask it to do. In any circumstances, it can always defend itself if it comes under attack. The hon. Gentleman knows that to be true, because he knows a considerable amount about this subject. We have no intention of providing a taxi service for asylum seekers through the Royal Navy. We have received the co-operation of countries in the area—
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Kenya, in particular, as I have said—in bringing these people to justice. We will take robust action, and we are also helping with the biggest single effort being made at the moment—the co-ordination of the many different nations operating in the area. There are Russian and Chinese ships in the area, as well as those of NATO countries, and they are all prepared to co-operate and to co-ordinate their activities. The Royal Navy has provided a superb facility in assisting and enabling that co-operation to take place.


4. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What plans he has for the future provision of military equipment to service personnel in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. [277536]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): We plan to continue to supply our troops in Afghanistan with the best possible equipment: personal equipment, weapons and communication systems, as well as intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—ISTAR—assets, armoured vehicles, helicopters, electronic countermeasures and all the rest. Highlights this year so far have been the delivery to theatre of Mastiff 2, Ridgback and Panther. I hope that in the next couple of months we shall deliver Jackal 2, and in the course of the year we shall make more Chinooks available for deployment in Afghanistan, as well as the first Merlins to be used there. Early next year, the new upgraded Lynxes will be delivered.

John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for that extensive answer. He will be aware of the comments by Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army, who said that he was worried about the distant future and the need to “muddle through” that might arise in respect of the weapons that are to be sent to the Army. He also said that the weapons were not up to the standard required, and that they arrived too late. Has my hon. Friend had any discussions with Sir Richard, and if so, what was the outcome?

Mr. Davies: I have regular discussions with Sir Richard Dannatt, a man for whom I have the greatest admiration and regard. He is a very fine officer—and I have to say that I think that he has been misquoted by my hon. Friend. I am quite certain that he did not say those things about the weapons that we are delivering to Afghanistan being inappropriate. As for their being too late, I have just given an example of how we are delivering weapons systems and other equipment remarkably rapidly, sometimes within six months of the order going out to the supplier.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): May I ask a question about helicopters? Incidentally, I am delighted that RAF Odiham in my constituency has been reprieved, and I hope that it now faces a long period of stability and investment. I want to ask about helicopters in the coming period. In the next three or four years, as old helicopters are phased out and before new ones have come on stream, there is likely to be a reduction in the availability of helicopters. What do the Government propose to do about that gap?

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Mr. Davies: I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his advocacy of RAF Odiham, for which he is famous in the House, and I am glad that he is happy with the news of the latest developments. As for helicopters, I look forward to discussing that matter in greater detail with the Defence Committee, to which I have been invited, tomorrow. As I think he knows, we are looking at a series of possible upgrades and life extension programmes for our existing fleet of helicopters, as well as focusing on the need for the future medium helicopter. Decisions on all these matters will be taken in the coming months. It will give me great pleasure to go through some of the issues with the right hon. Gentleman tomorrow, if he so wishes. As I frequently say—internally and, increasingly, externally—when it comes to helicopters, I am interested in outputs rather than inputs. Since November 2006—if I have the figures absolutely correct—we have succeeded in achieving an 80 per cent. increase in the helicopter hours available to commanders in Afghanistan. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman regards that, as I do, as a fine achievement and a positive step in the right direction.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): Can the Minister confirm that the problems experienced with rucksacks that are ill-fitting with the body armour that we supply to our armed forces in Afghanistan have now been resolved? Does he agree that in dealing with problems like this, it is imperative to act quickly?

Mr. Davies: I am totally with my hon. Friend on that latter point. Yes, we have looked into issues surrounding the burden of rucksacks in relation to the armour and so forth. It is an enormously important issue, because our troops have to carry enormous weights in very hot conditions, and I am concerned to ensure that we do everything possible continually to improve their personal equipment. The whole procurement function, as I see it, is one of managing continuing improvement. We have to remain flexible, we have to remain alert, and we have to ensure that everything we do gets better all the time. That has indeed been the story of our recent achievement, and we will continue it further. In the course of the next couple of months I shall be in Afghanistan again, and I shall talk, as I have before, individually to many people in all ranks about their issues with equipment, including the personal equipment to which my hon. Friend referred, and what they feel about all aspects of it.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): The Minister will be well aware of the considerable overstretch that our troops face in Afghanistan, so can he update the House and tell us whether he has had any success in persuading other European members of NATO to supply more military equipment for our forces out there?

Mr. Davies: I do not accept the hon. Lady’s characterisation of the situation as one of overstretch. Of course, our forces have been under considerable stretch recently—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] “Overstretch” implies that our troops are being asked to undertake tasks that they are not able to undertake, which has not been the situation. The distinction between stretch and overstretch is very important, and I hope that she recognises it. Furthermore, with the end of our operations in Iraq, the stretch and the stress have been reduced. The hon. Lady will know that our last combat troops
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came back from Iraq just last week—indeed, I was privileged to be at RAF Honington when the RAF Regiment returned after a gallant deployment—so she is looking at the issue from the wrong angle. That said, yes, we have made considerable progress in persuading our NATO allies to make further contributions. The French, for example, have doubled theirs from 2,000 to 4,000 troops.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I was very glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) mentioning the weight of the personal equipment that our service personnel have to carry. Will the Minister tell the House a little more, particularly about body armour and the personal electronic countermeasures equipment, which seem to be the two main sources of the problem? What is being done to try to reduce the weight of those particular items?

Mr. Davies: A great deal of work is being done to improve the armour. I believe that our Osprey armour is the best armour available to anyone in the world today. We would like to improve it further and make it more effective; at the same time—there are obviously trade-offs to be made here—we would like to make it lighter if we can. We are making a continuing effort on electronic counter-measures, but I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that it would be in nobody’s interest—least of all that of our troops deployed in Afghanistan—for me to go into the details in public.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): We are indeed looking forward to seeing the Minister before the Select Committee tomorrow. We just hope that he will allow time for us to ask the questions.

Apart from the helicopters, what equipment is being reassigned from Iraq to Afghanistan?

Mr. Davies: I may say to the hon. Gentleman that when I appear before a Select Committee, I regard the time involved as a matter for the Committee. I shall be there for as long as the Committee requires me to be there.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, probably the most important asset to be reassigned from Iraq to Afghanistan immediately—or at least within a few months, after some maintenance and upgrade work—will be the Merlins. A number of other individual items of equipment may go to Afghanistan, but no precise decisions have been made about that yet.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Concerns remain about the loss of lives as a result of improvised explosive devices. Can my hon. Friend say any more about the urgency that he attaches to the provision of greater armour for vehicles to protect our troops from explosions of that kind?

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