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The Solicitor-General: I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to our armed forces. We ask a lot of them in very difficult circumstances, particularly in Iraq; throughout their period there, they have done Britain proud. As I have said, there are very few cases where an investigation has been necessary because our forces' behaviour has been outstanding. However, it is right that these investigations take place expeditiously. On the delays about which the hon. Gentleman asked, we believe that the new procedures will speed up the process. The Judge Advocate-General has instituted new court procedures, which are already paying dividends by ensuring that courts martial are heard more quickly. Moreover, as a result of this and other cases, the SIB has improved its procedures. I hope that the HMIC report, which we should receive in due course, will provide the advice that the SIB needs to enable it further to improve its carrying out of such investigations.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the same tests are applied in considering whether to prosecute, and the answer is yes. In this case, there was no realistic prospect of a conviction, so in a sense the public interest test did not need to be applied. The evidence did not substantiate initiating proceedings. On the link between Army and civilian courts, this Parliament has created circumstances in which it is appropriate for cases to be transferred from one jurisdiction to another. We firmly believe that the military courts system is very good. It has delivered justice very fairly across a range of issues, and we continue to have substantial faith in it.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the duties of the Ministry of Defence, which is of course obliged to ensure that it provides soldiers serving in Iraq and elsewhere with proper equipment. The question of kevlar plates and the wearing of the appropriate protective jacket played no part in the legal decisions. Although the pathologist's evidence is not conclusive, it does suggest that, because Sergeant Roberts was shot in the torso, a protective jacket might have made a difference and might have saved his life. My colleagues in the MOD are taking account of that issue. I should point out that the MOD is not a body corporate, of course, and has Crown immunity in relation to such matters. That, in a sense, deals with the hon. Gentleman's point about legal duties.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con):
As the Solicitor-General will know, Mrs. Roberts is a constituent of mine. All our thoughts go out to her and her family at what has obviously been an incredibly distressing time. I welcome the Solicitor-General's statement, particularly his saying that there will be no prosecution of the soldiers involved. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said, this was clearly a tragic series of events,
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involving soldiers working in incredibly difficult circumstances. I also welcome the concern expressed about the length of time taken to resolve this situation, which can only have added to the distress experienced by Mrs. Roberts and the rest of Sergeant Roberts' family.
The fact is that the main cause of Sergeant Roberts' death was the Government's insufficient preparation for the war in Iraq and the inadequacy of the kit. Tragically, Sergeant Roberts raised this issue himself in Iraq before he died. His wife has campaigned bravely on it, and I pay tribute to the courage that she has shown in that regard since her husband's death. She has acted with great dignity and she should be commended for that. I hope that, as a fitting tribute to Sergeant Roberts and the campaign fought by Mrs. Roberts, the Ministry of Defence will take note of the lessons to be learned and ensure that no other soldier dies, as Sergeant Roberts tragically died, because of inadequate kit.
The Solicitor-General: Of course, every death of a member of British service personnel is felt profoundly in the military family. All our thoughts are with Mrs. Roberts during these very difficult circumstances. She has been very concerned about the question of the protective equipment that her husband might have worn, and I am assured that the MOD has learned the lessons, is well aware of the circumstances of this case and is seeking to do all that it can to discharge its responsibilities to our soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere.
Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I share the expressions of sympathy to Mrs. Roberts and the other members of Sergeant Roberts' family. I welcome the fact that the Solicitor-General said that investigations into incidents such as this will be conducted much more speedily in the future, and I am sure that we are all glad to hear that. The Solicitor-General will no doubt be aware that my predecessor, Lord Tyler, worked with the Roberts family in seeking to bring the matters surrounding the tragic death of Sergeant Roberts to the attention of the wider world.
The issue of the lack of equipment that may have saved Sergeant Roberts' life is a matter of concern across Cornwall and the rest of the country. I welcome the Solicitor-General's assurances that his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence are investigating it and ensuring that such factors will not cause further deaths in future. However, can he tell us a little more about how investigations into that aspect of Sergeant Roberts' death impacted on the decision on whether to bring charges and the results of that consideration?
The presence or otherwise of the protective jacket is a matter for the Ministry of Defence and others, and it did not have any substantial bearing on the legal decisions. In terms of the lawyers' examination of the evidence, the issue was whether the soldiers had acted appropriately and whether Mr. Zaher was posing a threat to them at the time. Those matters were looked at and conclusions were reached based on a full investigation and consideration of the evidence. The straight answer to his question is that the presence or absence of kevlar plates and a protective jacket was not, in legal terms at least, an issue that had a substantial bearing on the outcome of the case.
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Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for his meticulous care in warning us of the statement that he has made today, and for its tone and content. He is right to say that our soldiers are not, and should never be, immune from prosecution. They are subject to the rule of law and that is what they are fighting for. The statement gives us a lot of information that we can look at now with the benefit of hindsight. I suppose the value of hindsight is that we can learn from it for the future.
There are two aspects on which I hope that the Solicitor-General can comment. First, the maxim that justice delayed is justice denied is one to which insufficient attention has perhaps been given. Secondly, the Solicitor-General referred to differences of view in the Army Legal Services. Given the fact that our soldiers are fighting on behalf of all usand doing a fantastic job in very difficult circumstancesdoes he agree that more benefit of the doubt could be given to our soldiers in relation to prosecutions such as this?
The Solicitor-General: It is important that whenever we look at a case involving our soldiers engaged in active service areas, such as Iraq, we take into account the precise circumstances in which they are operating. When making a decision, we need to take into account the threat that soldiers may feel under and the background circumstances that they face. In looking at the evidence, those who make decisions on prosecutionbe it the APA or the Crown Prosecution Service, as in this casewill consider those circumstances. Therefore, I do not think that we need to change the test.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the maxim that justice delayed is justice denied. Delays such as those in this case are regrettable, but it is also important that we have a full and thorough investigation. What we cannot have is a situation in which people make allegations that there has been some kind of cover up. They cannot do so here, because the case has been fully and properly investigated on several occasions. No criticism can now attach to the thoroughness of the investigation. If we demand that other countries comply with international law and basic standards, we must show that we do to. This case shows that. We have conducted a full investigation and reached a conclusion based on the evidence. That is what we ask other countries to do and that is what we must continue to do ourselves.
Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): I am afraid that I will not be so charitable towards the statement, but that is perhaps because, as a former soldier, I know too well the effects that delay and such investigations have on the morale of soldiers, their families and unitsespecially those in the front line.
The Solicitor-General said that the case was started because it might have been perceived that British soldiers shot an unarmed civilian. However, at the end of his statement he said that if there is an allegation of wrongdoing and supporting evidence following an investigation, charges will be brought. Is it not the case that there was not actually an allegation of wrongdoing in this case, but that yet again commanding officers and units in the front linewho know the environment, as did the local Army Legal Services staffwere overruled for reasons of perception, not reasons of correct justice?
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