HC Deb 06 March 1991 vol 187 cc360-9

'.—(1) There shall be established in Northern Ireland the office of ombudsman for the army.

(2)No holder of the office of ombudsman for the army shall be or have been either a member of Her Majesty's Forces or a member of any police force in the United Kingdom.

(3) The term of office of the ombudsman for the army shall be five years, renewable for a second term of five years.

(4) The ombudsman for the army shall be responsible for overseeing the investigation of complaints made to the Royal Ulster Constabulary against members of Her Majesty's forces serving in Northern Ireland, including members of the Ulster Defence Regiment.

(5) The ombudsman for the army shall be informed of every complaint under subsection (4) above within one week of every such complaint being made.

(6) A complaint under subsection (4) above may be made directly to the ombudsman for the army, in which case the ombudsman for the army shall refer the complaint to the Royal Ulster Constabulary and subsection (5) above shall not apply.

(7) The conduct of the investigation of complaints under this section shall be the responsibility of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, acting in accordance with the statutory instrument issued under subsection (8) below.

(8) The Secretary of State shall, after consultation with the ombudsman for the army, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the General Officer Commanding, Northern Ireland, the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights and the Committee for the Administration of Justice, issue a statutory instrument setting out the procedure for the investigations referred to in subsection (7) above.

(9) The ombudsman for the army shall publish an annual report detailing the number of complaints made in the relevant year, the nature of the complaints made, the way in which such complaints were dealt with, the outcome of each such complaint, and any other matters which may be required under the statutory instrument made under subsection (8) above.

(10) Every annual report issued under subsection (9) above shall contain an assessment of the complaints procedure in place during the year in review and shall contain any recommendations for improvement which the ombudsman for the army judges it appropriate to suggest.

(11) The Secretary of State shall make an order setting out the terms and conditions under which the office of the ombudsman for the army is to be held, subject to subsections (2) and (3) above.'.—[Mr. Jim Marshall.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Jim Marshall

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This new clause deals with the appointment of an ombudsman for the Army—an independent person who could deal with complaints against Army personnel in Northern Ireland. The Minister will recall that this topic was discussed at some length in Committee, but I make no apology for returning to it. In our view, it is of paramount importance that the security forces—specifically, the Army —in Northern Ireland have such a structure, so that it may be shown beyond any shadow of doubt that many of the complaints levelled against the Army are malicious and untrue. If that can be done by means of independent machinery, the Army's position will be enhanced, and the public's confidence in it will be increased, resulting in an increased flow of information to the security forces generally.

No doubt the Minister agrees that if such an appointment were made the Army would be brought formally into line with the RUC in this respect. Lord Colville devoted a large section of his latest report to the subject of complaints. He pointed out that an effective complaints procedure is essential, for at least two reasons —first, to avoid the creation of more terrorists as a result of counter-terrorist measures; secondly, to ensure that relations with the civilian population are such as to guarantee a ready flow of information to the security forces. With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I intend to quote Lord Colville's report at some length. I apologise for having to do so, but I hope that I shall not be accused of making the mistake of which I accused the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble)—making selective quotations to support a case.

Lord Colville stressed the importance of this issue. Paragraph 5.51 of his report says: So long as emergency laws are in force effective complaints procedures must take equal rank with training and sensitive planning, in ensuring that the operations which constitute the campaign against terrorism do not end up by alienating the civilian population. Paragraph 5.5 states: The fundamental reason for trying to satisfy the public is that the security forces are there only to bring order according to the law. There is an operational reason to reinforce this". That reinforces the point that I have already made twice. The report continued: the majority of crime is reported by the public, and the majority of the solutions depend on information given by the public. Assistance will come more readily from those whose contacts with the security forces are such as to encourage them. At paragraph 5.7 the report continues: There is then the battle for hearts and minds. The winning of that is no one-way trade. The armed forces seek to instill confidence through sensitivity and politeness whereas it is greatly to the terrorist's advantage to mar that image. At paragraph 5.12, Lord Colville quotes from the instructions issued by the commander land forces in 1988 on the consequences of the effective investigation of complaints. The report states: Effective investigation of complaints may have the following desirable consequences: (a) Justice is done and seen to be done. (b) Good order and military discipline are properly enforced and seen to be so. (c) Public confidence in the armed forces is maintained and improved. (d) False accusations are properly and, if necessary, publicly refuted, thus countering terrorist propaganda and preserving the reputation of the armed forces, individually and collectively. Lord Colville concludes in paragraph 5.26: I believe it to be in the public interest, and of great potential value to the security forces as well as the community, that serious thought should now be given to devising acceptable supervisory systems". I recognise that there are informal mechanisms for the handling of complaints—the Minister referred to some of them in Committee—but the new clause rectifies the anomaly that the police are subject to a statatory procedure while the Army is not. What I have said shows that the new clause is inspired by a suggestion made by Lord Colville—page 22 of the report, paragraph 5.25—that an ombudsman-type official could be responsible for the investigation of complaints against the Army.

In Committee the Minister gave signs of his intention to consider ways of bringing that about. He said: I said that we intended to return to the matter on Report, and that remains our intention. I did not undertake to return to the matter in Committee because I did not think that we would be in a position to do so, and we are not. That answer may not give the hon. Gentleman great insight into the thinking of my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence"— that is true—

but I reiterate my assurance on 17 January that we are considering the matter and that when we have something to report we shall return to the House. I therefore ask the Committee to reject the motion."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 31 January 1991; c. 354.] In the first part of that quotation the Minister made a specific commitment—he said that he intended to return to the matter on Report. In the second part of the quotation, he was a little more evasive and said that the Government were considering the matter and would return to the House when they had something to report. I am prepared to accept that the Minister intends to present some proposals at some stage, but it would have been far better for all of us if he had been able to present them on Report. We regret that he has not been able to do so, which was one of the primary reasons why we reintroduced the new clause on the ombudsman.

The new clause is designed to probe the Government's present thinking on the procedure. If the Minister deflects our probe or even refuses it and makes it clear that he will reject both our proposal and Lord Colville's thinking on complaints against the armed forces, we shall press the new clause to a Division. I hope that we are not driven to that course of action, but a great deal will depend upon how the Minister responds to the points that I have made.

Mr. Molyneaux

I do not quite understand why the word "ombudsman" was used. I am not criticising the official Opposition, because I understand Lord Colville used that word, although he said, "ombudsman-like". The function of an ombudsman is to investigate complaints of maladministration, and such a complaint is usually laid —sometimes by Members of Parliament—against Departments of Government, in this case the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence. Such complaints could be made only against Ministry of Defence agents—in this case, the Army—for example, because of damage to a vehicle or a house after or during a search.

The mechanism set out by the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) already exists for complaints against individual soldiers, and I should have thought that that was sufficient. I know of many cases in which it has been the instrument for disciplining soldiers who, like all of us, occasionally step out of line when they are in uniform.

Like the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea), I noted the point made in an earlier debate on the desirability of common citizenship of the United Kingdom and of avoidance of second-class citizenship anywhere in the United Kingdom. Therefore, it is peculiar that we are now contemplating having second-class treatment for the element of the Army that serves in one part of the United Kingdom.

Wherever it is based, the Army supports the civil authorities. It has been used in support of civil power in this capital city of the United Kingdom. For example, the Special Air Service was used, with great success, to storm the Iranian embassy. The troops in Northern Ireland and in the Ulster Defence Regiment have not chosen to be shot at in the course of their duties. British military personnel have borne and used arms in many places on the continent, notably in West Germany. There too they are in contact in the course of their duties with the civil population. Will this proposed clause be applied to those troops? If not, why not?

To go a little further afield, some of us have noticed that parts of the Army are dealing with civilians in a place called Kuwait and have also been at some considerable risk, and risk of complaint. I understand that some parts of the Army are still in Iraq and no doubt they are doing their best to win the battle for hearts and minds in that country. I have great sympathy with our serving soldiers because of the manifold restrictions already imposed on them. I doubt that our 1st Armoured Division would have advanced so swiftly across the desert last week if its soldiers had been told by their commander before they started, "Watch it boys: the ombudsman will be looking over your shoulder at all stages," and if they had been warned that they would be court-martialled if they happened to ram an Arab camel in the dead of night.

If we are to have this device in Northern Ireland alone, we should face up to the fact that we need an entirely new force rather than a rotating element of the Army serving there. There must be a special permanent force, presumably a special unit of the Army, perhaps in conjunction with the Ulster Defence Regiment. I hope that no further burdens will be imposed on the soldiers who risk their lives in defence of all of us when they happen to be posted to Northern Ireland.

9.15 pm
Mr. Mallon

I should like to pick up a point made by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux). No comparison can be made between an army during a declared war, as in the desert in Kuwait, and an army that fulfils a policing role, as in the north of Ireland.

Mr. Molyneaux

What about Germany?

Mr. Mallon

Substantial differences occur in Germany compared with the north of Ireland, especially in terms of confrontation and manoeuvres. The policing role that the Army performs in the north of Ireland is, of necessity, of great sensitivity.

Any army is a blunt instrument, as the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley said. Either it has a policing role or it is involved in a war. The Government tell us at great length why the Army is not involved in a war. One need only remember the former Prime Minister's references in a European country to a war in Northern Ireland to recognise the hasty way in which the Government's position was clearly put. The implications are immense and far-reaching, and are not always conducive to solving the problem.

An Army complaints procedure is needed. The present mechanism is not sufficient, because it is not a complaints procedure but merely an informal method. A young person who wishes to complain has three options. First, he can go to the RUC. He will be told that, unless violence was used against him or threatened or a criminal offence was committed, it is not a matter for the RUC. The second option is to go to an Army base. One can imagine the reception that that young person would get when he arrived at the outside gate of any Army base and said that he would like to make a complaint against the Army.

The third option is what is termed the informal choice —to process complaints through Members of Parliament, local councillors and people who have standing in the community, such as clergymen. Such people would consider the case at third hand, which is a difficulty in itself. We cannot deny a proper means of processing legitimate complaints and not provide the necessary means to do that while somewhere in between relying on an informal process and hoping for the best, which is what happens at present.

Difficulties arise for officers in the armed forces. If a complaint involves a disciplinary matter, they can investigate and deal with it speedily and efficiently, as they do now. As well as being a blunt instrument, an army tends to have a strong discipline base, and its commanders have a strong sense of authority.

It is possible for someone like myself to process a complaint and to receive certain satisfactions because such and such an action was taken against a certain person on a certain date. One accepts that such disciplinary action is used in certain circumstances.

What happens when it is suggested that a complaint should be taken to law? Do the officers try a soldier twice? Is he subjected to the disciplinary process within the Army and an official investigation by the police at the same time? The difficulty is that, in 99 cases out of 100, when there is a threat of or actual violence, invariably there are no witnesses. When that happens, the person who is aggrieved must put his word against that of five or six members of an Army patrol. When the case goes to the Director of Public Prosecutions and he takes a cursory look at it—it is right to be cursory, as there is no supportive evidence—it is stamped "no case".

It is bad for everyone that we do not have a formalised, clearly defined statutory way in which such a complaint can be processed. We should not be glib about this, because it is bad for morale, for people and for those soldiers against whom unfounded complaints are made. I am aware of circumstances in which that happens and, in those cases, I am the first to recognise that that is unjust to the soldier involved. Such cases should not be allowed to stand, but when a genuine complaint is made there must be a proper way in which to proceed with it.

One hon. Member said that he wanted to bring complaints against the armed forces into line with complaints against the police. He should read Lord Colville's report—I referred to it on Monday—which, in implied scathing terms, referred to the success, or lack of success, of the Police Complaints Commission in the north of Ireland. From more than 400 complaints to that commission, not one disciplinary charge resulted. That tests the credibility of anyone who knows the tinder box that is the north or Ireland and the sensitivities that exist.

There is something wrong with that complaints procedure, but it is not the fault of the legislation. I was in the House when that legislation was passed. It is good, and it has laid down procedures to ensure that there is a full and adequate investigation of a complaint and adequate redress. Is it not time to consider the 400-odd cases that have gone before the commission and to ask what is wrong? Lord Colville's report contains a strong implied criticism of and comparison between the effectiveness of the police complaints procedures in England and Wales as opposed to those in the north of Ireland.

The Secretary of State should look carefully at the Police Complaints Commission in the north of Ireland, although I accept that it is a bit late to do that, because new appointments have been made. Suffice it to say the facts speak Tot themselves.

Dr. Mawhinney

I thank the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) for the way in which he introduced his new clause. He did so in the same measured and responsible manner as he acted in Committee. No one objected to the references to Lord Colville—indeed, the hon. Gentleman did the House a service.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) repeated the arguments he put in Committee and affirmed his belief that some new measures are necessary. I understood the point that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) made. Bearing in mind his typical grace, I know that he will not mind if I do not follow him into the sands of the desert and the autobahns of Germany.

I shall start in the spirit with which I tried to conduct proceedings in Committee by seeking common ground in the House. I am sure that it is common ground that the public have a right to expect the highest standards of behaviour from police officers and members of the armed forces. Activity or actions falling short of those standards will never be condoned.

The Government believe that anyone who has a genuine cause for complaint about the conduct of a police officer or a member of the armed forces should use the existing procedures for the investigation of such complaints. It was against that background that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland told the House on Second Reading that the Government were paying special attention to what Lord Colville and indeed others have had to say on this particular subject. He said that we would return to the subject as the Bill progressed. As the hon. Member for Leicester, South reminded the House, we returned to the issue in Committee.

As Lord Colville observed in his review, the Independent Commission for Police Complaints was established by the Police (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 in order to provide an independent element in the scrutiny of complaints against the Royal Ulster Constabulary. In Lord Colville's view, which the Government share, the commission is now making a valuable contribution, and should continue to be the main vehicle for reinforcing public confidence in the handling of complaints involving police officers. The commission has wide powers. As well as supervising the investigation of all complaints alleging death or serious injury, it can decide to supervise the investigation of any complaint. It does that to good effect and I understand that it intends to supervise even more of these cases in the future.

Ensuring that complaints against the armed forces are investigated promptly and thoroughly is no less important, as the military authorities fully recognise. In recent years, as Lord Colville has pointed out, the Army has therefore consistently sought to improve the way in which complaints are dealt with. The latest in a series of improvements will be the establishment, next month, at Army headquarters in Northern Ireland of a central complaints office to improve the monitoring and handling of complaints against the armed forces. I am sure that the House welcomes that initiative.

However, such measures do not of themselves answer Lord Colville's arguments in favour of bringing the complaints process under some form of independent scrutiny. Allegations of criminal misconduct by the armed forces are already, and will remain, subject to independent investigation by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. That is an important point for all hon. Members to bear in mind.

The hon. Member for Leicester, South reminded the House that in Committee I said that I intended to return to this matter on Report, and I now propose to fulfil that commitment. The Government have considered most carefully the arguments advanced by Lord Colville, the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, the Committee on the Administration of Justice, and others, including members of the Committee who expressed their view when the matter was debated there. Therefore, I am pleased to tell the House that we have decided in principle to introduce an independent element into the scrutiny of the armed forces' procedures for handling those complaints which fall short of allegations of criminal misconduct.

This matter falls primarily within the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. As I told the Committee, we have accordingly been discussing the matter with our ministerial colleagues in that Department, including how to give effect to our decision. As hon. Members will recognise, the subject is important and some care must be taken in drawing up proper arrangements. This will take a little more time, and my noble Friend the Paymaster General will therefore return to the subject in another place.

The Government are confident that, for the reasons set out by Lord Colville and others, this measure—in addition to all the other improvements in complaints systems either introduced in recent years or about to be introduced—will be of value to the community. It will also be of value to the armed forces in helping to build and retain the confidence and support of all men and women of good will from both traditions in Northern Ireland.

The Government are already addressing the important issues raised by the new clause. I hope that the hon. Member for Leicester, South feels that his probing clause has been satisfactorily met. It would have been convenient to the House if we had been able to bring forward the specific ideas that we have in mind. That has not proved possible, but at least I have made the commitment in principle. I hope that that will be satisfactory to the hon. Gentleman and that, consequently, he will not press his new clause to a Division.

9.30 pm
Mr. Jim Marshall

I welcome the Minister's final comments, but before I speak at greater length on what he had to say I must comment on what the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) said. Like many of his hon. Friends from the Province, he fails to distinguish between the Army acting in its usual role—he highlighted the warfare in the middle east theatre over the past few weeks—and in its role in support of the civil security force in the Province. There is a huge difference between the two roles.

I express no opinion on the recent war in the middle east, and clearly the restrictions that we seek to impose on the Army when it operates in the Province would not, could not and should not be imposed in an acknowledged theatre of war. But when the security forces are there to support and buttress the civilian security force, it is our duty to ensure that the Army is as nearly as possible subject to the same degree of control and scrutiny and to the same adherence to the law of the land as we expect from our police forces, whether in the Province or elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Molyneaux

The hon. Gentleman put his finger on the point in his penultimate sentence. He implied that one could not expect soldiers from a unit which had not been accustomed to service in Northern Ireland to behave as though they were local bobbies on the beat, and I accept that. It may surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that some years ago, when I had the freedom and privilege to drive my own car, soldiers belonging to a regiment which was withdrawn recently from the British Army of the Rhine, at a time when there was more tension in Germany than there is nowadays, would haul me out of my car at least three times a week, often in pouring rain, and frisk me, spreadeagled across the car. The car was searched and they would address me in terms that I shall not use in the House. It never occurred to me to lodge a complaint against any of those soldiers because, being an ex-service man myself, I recognised that they were not trained in community relations. They were trained to be the spearhead of the British Army of the Rhine. I hope that I have made the point that if an element of the 1st Armoured Division should, in the course of the rotation of units, be brought to Northern Ireland to do duty, it would almost need a special induction course. It could not be expected to behave like a London bobby.

Mr. Marshall

I shall not be tempted to follow all that the right hon. Gentleman has said, but the House realises that soldiers going to the Province for the first time will have a naivety that one would not expect from soldiers who have been there on more than one visit. The right hon. Gentleman must know that that is recognised by the Army authorities. The Army tries to teach such soldiers how to behave in a civilian role. I presume that it does it as well as it possibly can, although one might argue that it could be better done.

Mr. Molyneaux

The Army will have to make allowances for the fact that the offender was serving in the Province for the first time, and could not be expected to behave in the same way as a soldier who had been there for two years.

Mr. Marshall

I have already stressed that there is clearly a difference between the inexperienced soldier who is serving in the Province for the first time and the service man who has been there on more than one occasion. Nevertheless, inexperience does not excuse certain types of behaviour.

The Army acknowledge that first-time soldiers need to be educated as to the way they should operate in a civilian theatre. It knows more than anyone else that without the support and co-operation of the civilian population its role will be made more difficult by an order of magnitude than would otherwise be the case. That is why the Army emphasises the need for civility, but that point is one that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley sometimes fails to understand.

I welcome the establishment of a central complaints office within the next few weeks, and the Minister's decision in principle to establish also an element of independent security in respect of allegations against the armed forces. I appreciate that there are caveats and that discussions must take place. I am sure that the Minister realises that there must be fuller debate on that issue both in another place and in this House at the appropriate time.

Is it the Government's intention to introduce in another place amendments to the Bill?

Dr. Mawhinney

indicated assent.

Mr. Marshall

So it is the Government's intention to introduce further amendments to cover the points that we discussed, which we will then be able to debate when the Bill returns to this House.

Dr. Mawhinney

indicated assent.

Mr. Marshall

I am pleased that the Minister nodded more than once, as though to tell me to resume my place as quickly as possible.

Dr. Mawhinney

Our present intention is as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Marshall

I am grateful to the Minister. With that assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new clause.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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