HC Deb 20 November 1991 vol 199 cc391-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Neil Hamilton.]

12 midnight

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I wish to make known my deep concern about the circumstances surrounding the brutal rape of a constituent of mine, who will be known as Mrs. X, about the way in which the criminal investigation was conducted and about certain matters relating to the horrible affair. I wish to ask the Minister a number of questions about such cases. Incidentally, I shall use the name Mary as a double blind in the sense that none of the woman's family or friends knows her as Mary.

I believe that the victims of sexual assault, of child abuse and/or sexual abuse should be treated in a decent, compassionate and sympathetic manner during the criminal investigation of such allegations. The compassionate and sensitive treatment should not harm the search for sound forensic and other evidence. Prejudice and bias have no place in the scheme of things. The Minister knows my views on such matters when they might affect service personnel and families. In every case involving armed forces personnel and their families, the benchmark must be the best practices found in civil society. An example of what I mean can be found in Strathclyde, where in every division of the police force there is a well-established female and child unit, staffed principally by female officers who are well trained and highly experienced in interviewing skills and techniques in cases involving sexual assault, child abuse and/or sexual abuse.

When dealing with previous Bills affecting the armed services, the Minister and his colleagues have always sought to assure me that the armed forces are keenly aware of the need to treat complainers—irrespective of age—in a sympathetic manner. My first question to the Minister, who is apprised of the case, is whether he is satisfied that Mrs. X and her husband were treated with compassion.

In the summer, I received a letter from Mrs. X which disturbed me greatly. She wrote: I am writing to you in the hope that you can help me with the injustice which has occurred. On 16th February 1991 whilst my husband was serving in the Gulf on Operation Granby, I was invited to attend a function at the Corporals Mess"— in a particular regiment which, of course, I shall not mention— which I did attend with some of my friends. I enjoyed the function and my friends kept me in good cheer as I was obviously anxious about my husband being in the Gulf and did have a few too many drinks. I also had a plaster of Paris cast on my leg (which had been injured in a fall some weeks before) and consequently had some difficulty in walking, I was put on the Regimental Mini Bus which was run purely to ferry married personnel to their married quarters after functions. I arrived at my quarter at what time I do not know due to me being very intoxicated and when I awoke some hours later I discovered the following". I am quoting verbatim as you would expect, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

  1. "1. My blouse had been unbuttoned.
  2. 2. My bra had been forced over my breasts.
  3. 3. My underwear had been removed and left torn in half on my bed.
  4. 4. My trousers had been removed with some force as my right leg was in a great deal of pain around the cast.
I then tried to deduce the events of the previous night and discovered some time later that I had been raped by force by XYZ who had been on the mini bus and followed me home. I went to the medical centre and there a male doctor did a very degrading examination of my body. The investigator from the … Special Investigation Branch obtained the following statement from XYZ. He had whilst I was lying intoxicated on my bed in my quarter had oral sex, had masturbated over my body and had entered my vagina for about 10 seconds. I was assured by the SIB that there would be a court martial and XYZ would be charged with rape but that did not happen, he was charged only with being in the married quarter area, fined 14 days wages and demoted in rank to Trooper. So dear Dr. Godman I feel I have been treated badly in this case and would he grateful if you would pursue this matter further. I have listed the facts to assist you:
  1. 1. I asked for my husband to be returned from the Gulf but this was not possible due to the ground war beginning.
  2. 2. I asked for my Mother to be brought from the UK to give me comfort in my husband's place, it took 3 weeks for this to happen.
  3. 3. The investigator of the SIB assured me that the evidence obtained from XYZ, written and recorded, warranted a court martial.
  4. 4. I asked for professional counselling which I didn't get."
Mrs. X goes on to list a number of complaints.

I wrote to Mrs. X to inform her that I would take her case up with Ministers at the Ministry of Defence. In a letter to the Secretary of State, I outlined my deep concern over the case and over the way in which the allegation by Mrs. X had been investigated.

In reply, the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces gave me certain assurances. He said, for example, that the matter had been thoroughly investigated by the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police. In accordance with normal regulations, their final report was forwarded to the Commanding Officer who sought legal advice on its findings. Legal advice recommended that, as Mrs. X was unable to remember anything of the alleged incident and that, as it may not be possible to prove beyond reasonable doubt that, not only did she not consent, but also that XYZ knew that she was not consenting, the case should be dealt with summarily by the Commanding Officer. The Minister also said that the medical examination had been carried out in a sympathetic and professional manner.

I sent a copy of the Minister's letter to Mrs. X and she responded a few days later on 20 October. She wrote: Thank you for your letter dated 9th October 1991 which I have read with great dismay. You were right in saying that the minister Earl of Arran has disappointed me to no end. I find it very hard to understand that if a person who admits to having raped a person can get away with it. On his admission to a policeman in civilian life no doubt that person would be convicted of rape. Yet in the army, a person who admits to having raped a married woman whilst her husband was fighting to preserve peace can get away with it. I am now pursuing civil legal action and if need be publish it in my local daily paper and some other well known daily papers. The army has a lot to answer for. I intend to uncover the old boy system where everybody covers up when cases like this arise. Who knows how many women have had the same ordeal as myself? No wonder no woman ever comes forward to seek help if this is the sort of justice the army say it is. And because I was drunk and can't remember anything about my ordeal, does that give him the right to do what he did to me? So if all women are drunk and are raped then the person doing indecent assault has no case to answer to. I sincerely hope that Mrs. X's complaint was not treated in a dismissive way because, as she readily admitted, she was drunk at the time of the assault. I know that the hand that rocks the cradle is supposed to be steady 24 hours a day, but that does not always hold. No woman should be treated in a certain way simply because she was drunk when she suffered an assault.

Mrs. X mentioned in her letter that she was giving thought to taking civil legal action, so I sought advice on private prosecutions from both the Attorney-General, for such actions in England, and the Lord Advocate, for similar cases in Scotland. Both offered only circumspect answers. The Attorney-General said in response to a parliamentary question on Tuesday 19 November: The information is not readily available. I will reply to the hon. Member as soon as possible. In a letter dated 19 November, the Lord Advocate said that in Scotland Civil actions are raised in the Court of Session or Sheriff Court … Mrs … would have to establish first of all that she does indeed have a right to raise an action arising from the unfortunate incident of which she has complained. She would probably have the right to do so in the court in Germany which would have jurisdiction in relation to the place where the events happened, assuming that German law recognises the ground of action contemplated. A court in the United Kingdom might have jurisdiction if the alleged perpetrator was domiciled here because of the provisions of the Civil Jurisdictions and Judgments Act 1982. That Act also determined the next question—whether the action should be brought in England or Scotland.

Everyone in Scotland knows of the famous Glasgow case involving a female complainer who took out a private prosecution in such a case. The case will be keenly remembered by the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn), who was the principal Law Officer for Scotland at the time.

I readily acknowledge that I cannot expect definitive statements from the Minister when the answers given by his ministerial colleagues, who have greater legal experience than the Minister and I possess, are, to say the least, somewhat circumspect. I must also acknowledge to the Minister and the House that I have been unable to interview my constituent face to face. Our exchanges have been by telephone or Royal Mail, so I readily acknowledge that there may be some problems there. Nevertheless, in my view, Mrs. X has been shabbily treated in what I can only call a squalid affair.

I seek the help of the Minister with some questions. Will he explain why the perpetrator of the offence is to be allowed to return to the base where Mrs. X's husband is stationed and where she lives? Mrs. X told me in a telephone conversation today that the acting commanding officer and the warrant officer, who is the family officer, have informed her that the man is to return within the next two weeks. I appeal to the Minister: the man should not be allowed to return to his unit; he should remain where he is at this moment.

In cases of this nature, is the victim, following the successful prosecution of the accused person, advised about financial compensation? Does a member of the armed forces serving in the United Kingdom or overseas, or a member of his or her family, have the right, where appropriate, to seek compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board? If armed services personnel and members of their families have that legal right, are they made aware of it by their commanding officers?

Is the Minister confident that the counselling services offered to someone in such circumstances are of the highest quality? Does it equal the counselling that a woman can obtain in Scotland, England, Wales, or indeed Ulster? Is the Minister confident that medical officers carry out only one examination in each case, and is it conducted in a highly skilled and compassionate manner?

What practical advice could the armed forces offer to someone who contemplated taking out a private prosecution? Could that person obtain advice from people in the armed forces who have legal training, or could the armed forces obtain that sort of advice for the person seeking it? Will the Minister give me an assurance that Mrs. X was not discriminated against because, by her honest admission, she was drunk when she was assaulted?

I sought this Adjournment debate in the hope that Mrs. X and her husband could find peace of mind and could somehow be helped to strengthen their marriage. They have suffered a terrible ordeal, and it is my sincere hope that they will find the peace of mind that they so richly deserve.

I have mentioned the Gulf war. While I was opposed to that operation, I have the highest respect for our armed forces personnel, and—for rather quaint reasons—I have great sympathy and respect for members of the Royal Military Police.

Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South)

Why is that?

Dr. Godman

I shall make no confessions.

My constituent, Mrs. X, who is still suffering badly, had been treated in a less than fair way by those who conducted the criminal investigation and also by those who decided that there were no grounds for bringing the perpetrator in front of a court martial. I seek those assurances from the Minister.

12.18 pm
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)

The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) has been successful in securing this Adjournment debate. I know that the hon. Member has shown considerable interest in the case that is the subject of the debate, although I find it surprising that he has chosen to raise the matter in this way.

As he has outlined, the details of the case are extremely delicate and sensitive and, considering some of the descriptions of the case that he has given, it seems extraordinary that he chose to raise the matter on the Floor of the House. He could quite easily have asked to meet me or my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces—with whom he has been corresponding, as he said—at the Ministry of Defence, where we could have discussed the matter in a more suitable environment.

Notwithstanding, we are debating the matter on the Floor of the House and I shall have to go into some matters of delicacy in my response.

This is an emotive case, which has been subject to a full investigation by the special investigation branch of the Royal Military Police, and disciplinary action has been taken against the soldier in relation to the allegations. The charge was supported by the evidence collected by the Royal Military Police inquiries. As the hon. Gentleman has said, Mrs. X has indicated that she may be taking proceedings further, so it would be most improper for me to go into too much detail on this case. Having said that, I feel that there are significant aspects that should be brought out in order to put the matter in perspective.

As the hon. Gentleman has stated, Mrs. X, by her own admission, was very drunk. On more than one occasion she has admitted to being very intoxicated and I understand that she has stated that she had consumed about 24 single measures of dry Martini and lemonade, together with some white wine. It is perhaps not surprising that her recollections of that evening are vague. Indeed, the case against the soldier involved rests primarily on his evidence, not hers.

Once Mrs. X had made her allegations, there followed a full investigation by the special investigation branch, Royal Military Police, which included a full medical examination. I can confirm that, although the medical examination was clearly an unpleasant experience for Mrs. X, it was in accordance with the regulations and was conducted with kindness and sympathy throughout. Indeed, the examining doctor was a registered medical practitioner—a reservist called up in the course of the Gulf conflict. The examination was conducted in the presence of a female nurse and a female member of the Royal Military Police. As we know, the whole indignity that women have to go through for these examinations is, of necessity, I am afraid, an unpleasant experience. In this case, as in all cases, the examination was done with as much sympathy as can be shown.

When the case was presented to the commanding officer of the unit involved, he sought advice from the appropriate Army legal branch, which advised what charges, if any, were supported by the evidence. I should almost like to repeat that. It is important that we do not get away from the fact that, when any charge is laid, there must be evidence that will hold up for convicting somebody of that charge. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a similar role is undertaken by the Crown prosecution service in criminal proceedings, and I am sure that he will agree that it is right and proper that such an independent assessment of the facts should take place. This independent assessment results in a judgment being made about the likelihood, based on that evidence, of a court finding a case proved beyond reasonable doubt.

Clearly in this case, where both parties were, by their own admission, drunk and unable to remember fully the events that took place, the commanding officer was placed in a very difficult position. The forensic evidence did not support a charge of rape or any other assault. What evidence there was supported a relatively minor charge under military standing orders and the soldier concerned was charged, found guilty and punished under the powers accorded to the commanding officer. Mrs. X and the hon. Member are aware of the nature of this punishment. By the same token that we do not want to be able to identify Mrs. X, it would not be appropriate for me to reveal the exact nature of either the charge or the punishment received by the soldier.

This is a most regrettable incident, but I cannot accept a charge that the Army did not take the allegations seriously and that the full and thorough investigation was not conducted in anything but a professional and sympathetic manner.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out that the soldier returned at one point when Mrs. X and her husband were still at the base. That was covered in the letter sent to the hon. Gentleman by my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces on 28 August. The hon. Gentleman will see that the letter says: In the interests of all parties", the soldier was posted … following this incident. It was unfortunate that he returned for a short time but this was necessary in order for him to complete training prior to deploying on an operational tour. The reasoning behind that was explained to Mrs. X and her husband.

I am afraid that the circumstances of the case—two people who were extremely drunk and who have a very hazy understanding of what went on—make it difficult for any charge to have any validity. In those circumstances, I believe that the military pursued this with all the diligence that they could. I regret that they were unable to pursue the matter any further.

None of us knows what happened on that occasion, and it is sad that the participants cannot remember, either.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past Twelve o'clock.