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Mr. Kevan Jones: I, too, visited the Coldstream Guards, and undertook other such visits relating to the
Bill with the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth). In my four visits to Iraq and on the various visits that I undertook with the Select Committee, I did not come across anyonebe it an infantry person or someone in a more senior positionwho said that they were risk-averse in the way that has been described. Unfortunately, even when evidence is put before the hon. Gentleman, he cannot come to terms with it.
Whenever you see an armed British serviceman or woman on duty, you can be confident that they will livemaybe dieby the rules that are drilled and trained into them and which make them the most professional forces in the world. It is all about using no more force than is necessary, using firearms as a last resort and only to protect human life, only firing aimed shots, no more rounds than are necessary and taking precautions to hit only the target...Believe you me, the Army knows what it is doing. The Rules of Engagement have stood the test of time and they are right.
Those are the words of the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key), who, sadly, cannot be here tonight. They are on his website, and if I can feel reassured by those words, I hope that the hon. Member for Aldershot can.
Mr. Howarth: I think that there has been a slight misunderstanding. There is no dispute about the nature of the rules of engagement. Indeed, one of our proposals was to include them in the Bill, so that compliance with them would be sufficient protection against prosecution. There are certain issues in that regard, which I have raised with the hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), but the serious question is whether people will be prosecuted. Concern that they might have exceeded the rules of engagement could damage them psychologically and affect their ability to be operationally effective; at worst, it could risk their losing their lives.
Mr. Watson: That concern is obviously not borne out by the hon. Member for Salisbury. The Coldstream Guards to whom I talked last week did not share it, either, so the hon. Member for Aldershot and I will have to disagree on this issue.
Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) quoted the survey leaked by The Sunday Telegraph. Does the Minister believe that that survey was properly founded? Why did that survey have to be leaked? When we had a Conservative Government, the regular surveys of a range of attitudes were available at any time on request by Members.
Mr. Watson: The hon. Gentleman will know that I cannot comment on that survey. I have not seen it and, if it was leaked, we do not comment on leaked documents. However, I will try to review the press article after the debate and if I can learn something from it I will contact him.
The hon. Member for Aldershot made several points about the role of the prosecuting authority and the
commanding officer. I know that he has expressed concern that if a serious offence were alleged, it would be investigated by the service police and the case passed to the service prosecuting authority without an opportunity for the commanding officer to explain the service context to the prosecuting authority. In fact, the Bill will not substantially change the present position, which hon. Members seek to preserve. I do not underestimate the seriousness with which hon. Members have made the point, but the service police will of course be able to consult the CO.
I shall explain why the concerns expressed, especially by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), are not founded. He said that the Bill would strip away a statutory obligation. To take the Army as an example, nothing in the Army Act 1955 provides a right for COs or higher authority to submit a report to the Army Prosecuting Authority setting out the military circumstances that prevailed. That right is covered by regulation.
Mr. Brazier: We are now in a much more litigious era, with a well-briefed enemy who is clever at working out fresh ways to make life difficult for our armed forces. The Bill will change the situation from one in which the CO has the powers to dismiss charges to one in which he is merely expected to be consulted. The Minister and his predecessor have been happy to make promises on the Floor of the House, so what is stopping the Government providing the comfort of putting them in the Bill?
Mr. Watson: I understand the hon. Gentlemans argumenthe has made it on three or four occasions. I shall try to answer that point. At present, there is provision in regulations for the commanding officer to submit to higher authority any information in his possession, in addition to other details, whichin his opinionmay be material to the institution of court martial or other proceedings. The higher authority is required to forward that material to the prosecuting authority when forwarding a case from the commanding officer. What use it makes of that information, if any, is entirely a matter for the prosecuting authority.
Under the Bill, there is no prohibition on commanding officers providing the same information as they do now. They will be aware of police investigations and we would expect a similar provision to be in the regulations made under the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) said to the Select Committee, we acknowledge that in such cases a commanding officer may have valuable information that could assist the director in the test that he must apply before proceeding to charge individuals. A commanding officer will have to be made aware of such a case, because it will affect one of his people and the operational efficiency of his unit. Written guidance will set out the standard operating procedures under which the service police will be obliged to act in that regard. Even now, the service police send daily reports to commanding officers notifying them of all cases that they have begun to investigate. Notifying them of a case that has gone
directly to the prosecuting authority will be a matter of course and we do not need to legislate for that process.
Mr. Gerald Howarth: One benefit of these proceedings is that all those comments are being written into the record, but I cannot understand why the Minister and his advisers are so loth to put something prescriptive into the Bill when they are perfectly prepared to include the words:
If an officer of a prescribed description becomes aware of circumstances of a prescribed description, he must as soon as is reasonably practicable ensure that a service police force is aware of the matter.
Why not put on the face of the Bill that the commanding officer shall be informed of the outcome of the investigation, or that the commanding officer maypermissive, not mandatoryinform the director of service prosecutions of the military context?
Mr. Watson: There is no need to include such a provision, as I shall explain. It is inconceivable that a commanding officer would not want to take up their right to submit circumstances to a prosecuting authority.
In the remaining time available, I want to deal with some of the more detailed points that the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) made so powerfully. He spoke of the need for powers to deal with serious offences during operations, which is probably the most serious point in our debate on these matters. Perhaps my explanation of the current situation will inform his conclusions in the Lobby later.
UK forces developed a shooting investigation policy for high-tempo operations in Iraq that was so successful that they adopted the same model in Afghanistan. It has led to fewer but better targeted service police investigations. It allows COs to decide that there is no suggestion of an offence and to delay service police investigation until the operational tempo permits it. Nothing in the Bill is inconsistent with that procedure.
Under the Bill, the CO will still have to make the service police aware of serious offences as soon as is possible and reasonably practicable. I hope that that assures the hon. Gentleman that we will not draw people away from high-tempo operations during important tours of duty.
Patrick Mercer: The Minister has generously answered my point, as far as it goes. I am grateful for his indication that it is at the heart of the debate, because the crux of the matter is that in operational circumstances such as those which prevailed for the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, the case of Trooper Williams, until it was satisfactorily dealt withby the CO in that caseseriously worried the rest of the regiment and caused operational ineffectiveness. If the powers to deal with such things during high-tempo operations were stripped away from COs, it could interfere with the operational effectiveness of units at that level.
Mr. Watson: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I would rather not be drawn into discussion of the case of Trooper Williams, which is extremely detailed. The
point that I was trying to make is that we will not be drawing people away from their immediate operational effectiveness.
I cannot comment on individual cases, but I suspect that one feature of the case mentioned by the hon. Member for Canterbury was the delay in resolving the matter. Service chiefs and all members of the armed forces share concern about such delays. The regime that we are introducing will ensure that matters that ought to go to the prosecuting authority move far more quickly than at present. The closer relationship between the service police and the prosecuting authority should help to improve the quality of the investigation. All those factors will contribute to reducing such delays.
Mr. Brazier: I did not suggest that the clause would prevent service police from consulting COs, but that it says that they should refer a case directly, which means that they could shove it on without consulting the CO.
Mr. Watson: Let me explain what currently happens. The clause will not prevent any service police from consulting the CO about the case in deciding whether there is sufficient evidence of an offence before sending the case to the director of service prosecutions. Where the service context is relevant to whether an offence has been committed, the service police not only may, but should, ensure that they understand that context. However, if they decide that there is sufficient evidence, the CO should not be able to stop the DSP considering the case.
I have tried to answer as many of the detailed points about the clause as I possibly can. Obviously, I will review Hansard tomorrow, and if I can help hon. Members further when I have looked at it, I will. With those assurances, I vainly attempt to reassure the hon. Member for Aldershot that the clause is not worth dividing the Committee.
Mr. Gerald Howarth: I made it clear at the outset, as did my hon. Friends, that the clause goes to the heart of the Bill and reflects some of the most significant changes to our procedures under the existing individual service Acts. We have sought not only to set out some of the concerns that we feel exist, but to make the case that if the Government feel so strongly that what we are saying is already current practice, it ought to be stated in the Bill.
I am sorry to disagree with the hon. Gentleman on his first outing as the Minister, but I feel very strongly about the issue. I have made the case in the Select Committee, I have the support of my hon. Friends, and we are disappointed that the Government feel unable to make such a change or, indeed, to offer us any possible change, not even further consideration before the Bill goes to another place. Therefore, I am afraid to saywith no personal disrespect to the Ministerthat I am not satisfied and that I will invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against the clause standing part of the Bill.
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