HC Deb 10 December 1997 vol 302 cc970-6 12.30 pm
Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate a debate on an important case. I shall keep my remarks as short as possible, to allow others to speak. It is a debate about procedure and about a serving Army major who has been arrested under the Official Secrets Act 1911. It is not a debate about substance, as the major has not been charged. I do not know what any charges will be, or what they can be, because, during the relevant period, he was serving with the United Nations force in Bosnia—a force which, by definition, has neither secrets nor enemies—and, therefore, he could not be accused of passing a secret to an enemy.

Major Milos Stankovic is a serving officer with the Parachute Regiment. He is British, he has a British passport and he is a loyal British subject. His father was a Serb who fought with the Chetniks in the second world war and barely escaped with his life. He came to Britain with nothing, built a new life and started a family. In due course, his son Milos wanted to become a Regular Army officer and had the distinction of being selected by the Parachute Regiment. He served as a platoon commander and a captain with the UN force in Kuwait.

In October 1992, the British Army was deployed for the first time on a large scale in Bosnia and was looking for Serb speakers. It had only two in its ranks—both were the sons of Serbian fathers, and Milos Stankovic was one of them. He was assigned for four tours of duty—two years in Bosnia. He served longer there in hazardous conditions than any other British soldier. He acted as an interpreter, interpreting not only the language but the people, and as an adviser to Colonel Bob Stewart of the Cheshire Regiment, to General Smith and to General Rose. His job was to deal with the Serbs—the most difficult of the three ethnic groups—and he did so. His job was to win their trust, and he did so. His job was to get to know them, and he did so.

In the Bihac crisis of late November and early December 1994, Milos Stankovic was personally responsible for freeing 50 Canadian UN hostages held by the Serbs and unblocking convoys and the airport. He did that alone and with great distinction. He crossed front lines in a soft vehicle under fire. He is a man of great courage.

In May 1993, Major Stankovic saved the life of a Muslim woman wounded by Croatian sniper fire in the town of Vitez. He scooped her up and took her to hospital and saved her life. He was awarded the MBE. He received his medal from the Queen at Buckingham palace.

Beyond the line of duty, Major Stankovic took part in humanitarian endeavours. He was responsible for helping many people. I shall not specify exactly what he did, although if charges are laid against him I may have to do so because they bear upon his courage and his character. However, I shall read an extract of a letter that he received from a Muslim woman whom he had helped and who had a Serb husband: We really must consider you our friend since what you have done for us is a huge thing. Such people who are prepared to help others risking their own lives are people who really must be considered friends. Therefore, one more huge thankyou for what you have done—you and that great humanitarian, General Rose. In spring 1995, Milos Stankovic was returned to normal soldiering. He served with distinction as a company commander with the first battalion of the Parachute Regiment in Aldershot and he was eventually selected to participate in the joint services task force at Bracknell. It was there on 16 October this year that the Ministry of Defence police came to get him. They arrested him, but they did not charge him. They took him to Guildford police station where he was locked in a cell. They told him that, because of the gravity of the case, he was not allowed to make a single telephone call. After two hours in the cell, the Guildford police quite properly countermanded that decision and allowed him to make a telephone call. Eight hours later, the arresting officers returned with a questionnaire. If their instructions had been obeyed, he would have had no advice in helping him with his replies.

During those eight hours, the police had been searching Milos Stankovic's house. They took away six boxes of documents, papers and mementoes—the kind of thing that people gather in war zones. They did not give him an itemised inventory, so he does not know exactly what they have. Therefore, it is difficult for him to prepare any defence. They took something from a shrine that he kept to the memory of his father who had died 18 months earlier. It may seem unusual for a serving British officer to have a shrine in his house, but there is nothing seditious or suspicious about it. They took his medals from his mess kit—the minature medals. They were the GSM for service in Northern Ireland, the UNIKOM medal for service in Kuwait, the Bosnia medal that he won four times over, and the MBE.

Last week, the police sent Major Stankovic a letter saying that he would have to be rebailed not, as originally agreed, on 11 December, but on 11 March. Apparently, there will now be a five-month fishing expedition. What was most upsetting was that the letter was addressed to Mr. Stankovic—there was no rank and no medal. It may seem a trifling discourtesy to someone who has not worn the Queen's uniform, but to someone in Major Stankovic's position it is a clear indication that he has already been judged guilty.

Major Stankovic has the same right as any serving soldier, charged with or under suspicion of having committed a grave offence, to have a senior soldier as his adviser, godfather or prisoner's friend. That courtesy has not been extended to him. He has been told to talk to no soldier, and any soldier who talks to him has to report it. He is left twisting in the wind.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for having given me notice that he intended to raise the subject. I represent Aldershot, the home of the Parachute Regiment. The hon. Gentleman is explaining that the major has not been allowed to talk to anyone serving in the Army. The Parachute Regiment has been adroit in representing the interests of some of its past members who have been in trouble. Does the hon. Gentleman know whether former members of the Parachute Regiment have been able to assist him or the major, and are they supporting him?

Mr. Bell

I believe that Major Stankovic has wide support within the regiment and, indeed, within the Army. A retired member of the regiment would be ideal. In some ways, General Sir Michael Rose would be ideal, but he cannot be involved because he may have to give evidence. The same applies to General Sir Rupert Smith who is the colonel-commandant of the regiment. The gap has not been filled and Major Stankovic still has no one to help him. The House should know that.

I had hoped that the Minister might be here, because I have some points to put to him. I wonder whether anyone else would like to intervene while I wait for the Minister.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

Major Stankovic is a constituent of mine living in Farnham. I acknowledge the efforts of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) in finding an opportunity to raise his case in the House. Those who have already heard some of the background to the case will be deeply concerned. Clearly, Major Stankovic is an officer who has seen dangerous duty and shown courage in some of the most difficult circumstances.

The hon. Member for Tatton, on the basis of his specialist knowledge, has further information that the House and the Minister will no doubt wish to consider. As we learn more about the matter it seems that there are two elements, in particular, that the Minister will want to consider.

First, there is the question whether there is any truth in the allegations against my constituent. I am certainly in no position to provide any comment on that matter. If there is any truth in the allegations, and if they are substantial, one must ask the Secretary of State for Defence to hasten the inquiry and afford my constituent natural justice by allowing the evidence to come forward. Charges should be brought, or the investigation should be dropped and Major Stankovic publicly exonerated.

The present state of affairs, in which ignorance is prolonged by delay, is not fair. It is also enormously damaging to Major Stankovic and his family. Whatever the state of any allegations, there seems to have been great difficulty and lack of care and support in the way in which he has been treated.

There appears to be a conspiracy to hold my constituent completely incommunicado and to deprive him of essential evidence for his defence. There has been a choice not to follow the normal Army system of appointing an officer to advise him after his arrest, and he has been left with no information about whether charges are to be made.

Underlying that, there is also the possibility of personal danger arising from public allegations of partisanship in a vicious situation. As the constituency Member of Parliament, I add my concerns to those raised by the hon. Member for Tatton. Now that the Minister is here, I believe that the hon. Member may wish to address the House again.

Mr. Bell

I am grateful for the intervention by the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley). She mentioned Major Stankovic's family, and this is a time of great anxiety for him and of distress for his 75-year-old mother. May I say how grateful I am to see the Minister here, and how much I appreciate what he does? I believe that the armed forces are lucky to have him. That is genuine; I regard him as a friend.

The case that I have been laying out is that of a serving major who I, like other people both in and out of uniform, feel has been denied due process. That applies especially to the fact that he was not allowed to make a telephone call after being arrested and that his medals and documents were taken. He has been left to twist in the wind.

I know that the Minister's powers in the matter are limited, but there are some things that he can do. I urge him to ensure that Major Stankovic's rights are respected and protected, and that his documents, including his driving licence, are returned to him, having been photocopied if necessary. I urge the Minister also to ensure that Major Stankovic's medals are returned, with an apology, and that the case is brought to an expeditious conclusion. I also urge him to wonder whether the fraud squad of the Ministry of Defence police is the right agency to investigate a matter of such complexity.

I finish with a question. What kind of a people are we, and what kind of a signal does it send, if we reward our heroes by arresting them? Heroes are ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Major Milos Stankovic is such a man.

12.43 pm
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Dr. John Reid)

First, I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) for my late arrival for the debate. It was unavoidable. The hon. Gentleman may wish to know that I travelled here by car with Ambassador Butler of UNSCOM—the United Nations Special Commission—to try to fit in my arrival with the time of the debate.

As a preliminary, may I tell the hon. Member that the whole House admires the way in which he worked, risked his life and showed such courage in reporting the war in Bosnia? He showed great personal courage in some dangerous situations and reported what he saw with passion and with compassion, but always with integrity and objectivity, too. Whenever he raises any matter in the House, we listen to him with great respect. In my view, the hon. Gentleman displayed deep compassion for all sides of the dispute in Bosnia and for all the peoples of that troubled land, whether Bosniac, Croat or Serb.

However, today it is not the war in Bosnia or the prospects for peace that the hon. Gentleman has chosen to raise. He knows that, because of the position that I hold, I rise to respond to him under restrictions and restraints of which he is well aware. I am restricted and restrained in how I can respond to the points that he has made—although I can say that the whole House will have heard what he said. I shall seek to respond to those points that do not fall properly within the process of judicial inquiry and operations.

The hon. Gentleman has made a judgment in deciding to raise the matter today. I am sure that he did so after careful thought, and with the conscientiousness that he would normally apply to such questions. He will know that in speaking about the case of Major Stankovic he will inevitably have given that case publicity. He will also know that it has already featured in detail in an article in the Daily Mail on Monday. Some of the points that he had previously made in private and has made again today were also expressed in that article.

Therefore, inevitably, publicity will surround the case. The hon. Gentleman will have made a judgment about that before embarking on his course of action. I have no means of knowing either what informed that judgment, or Major Stankovic's view of the publicity that his case will now receive, and whether he may believe that it will be helpful or otherwise to his own position.

For my part, in case there is any doubt on the subject, I wish to place on the record the fact that my Department has sought no publicity whatever for the case. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that we in the Ministry of Defence have been scrupulous in doing everything in our power to avoid publicity, which could cause unnecessary distress to Major Stankovic, and could risk prejudicing subsequent proceedings, or his defence if—I repeat "if"—he were to be charged.

Indeed, hitherto my Department has not even acknowledged the name of Major Stankovic or given it to the press. Whatever speculation may have arisen in that regard, it did not arise in any authorised fashion or, I hope, from any element in my Department.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

From the public prints, are not we entitled to ask whether the role of the military police will be seriously looked at, as that certainly is within the purview of the Minister's Department?

Dr. Reid

My hon. Friend is entitled to ask anything he likes, but I am more constrained in how I can reply. If he asks whether, in due course, consideration will be given to the MOD police, that subject—particularly during the strategic defence review—could be examined. If he is implying that I should somehow intervene in the investigation, that course is not open to me, and it would be unwise. That is precisely why I am being as constrained as I am in my remarks.

I would not wish to take any action or make any comment that might in any way influence an investigation that is under way or which ultimately could be perceived in any way to have affected the investigation or even the case for the defence, if charges were brought against Major Stankovic.

Mr. Martin Bell

As time is running out, will the Minister find it in himself to address two points: the protection of the rights of Major Stankovic, and the provision of a serving or ex-serving military officer to help and advise him?

Dr. Reid

I will address those points if the hon. Gentleman bears with me. He has relayed his views to me personally and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has written to the chief constable of the MOD police about the case, as was right and proper, and he has met MOD police officers. He will be able to confirm that my right hon. Friend and I told him that, while we could listen, we could make no comment on the merits of the case or the conduct of the MOD police investigation, for reasons that will be obvious. Ministers do not answer for the operational activities of police forces. The chief constable of the MOD police is responsible for the conduct of the investigation by his force and, in his constabulary capacity, he is independent of the Government under law.

Perhaps it would be helpful to the House if I outlined the processes involved. When the MOD police complete an investigation, they report to the Crown Prosecution Service, and careful consideration is given to the question of prosecution. If, having applied the criteria set out in the code for Crown prosecutors, the CPS concludes that proceedings are appropriate, it will make any necessary applications to the Attorney-General for his comments. If the decision is not to prosecute Major Stankovic, standard procedures will be followed by the MOD, including consideration of whether there might be evidence of a military offence having been committed.

It would be understandable if the hon. Member for Tatton or Major Stankovic felt concerned that the process could take some time. I can assure the House and the hon. Gentleman that once the MOD police have completed their investigation—and a decision has been taken on whether Major Stankovic should be prosecuted—and when the matter comes within the realm of my responsibility, my Department will carry out our procedures with fairness and with all possible speed.

I cannot make any prediction of the outcome, any more than I can comment on the merits of the case. The hon. Member understands all that, because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have explained it to him carefully. In any case, he is well aware of the procedures. However, I thought it right to set them out in some detail in case they were not entirely familiar to some hon. Members or to members of the public who may read our reports. I trust that the House will understand why I cannot reply to many of the questions raised by the hon. Gentleman in his speech.

I wish to emphasise that if Major Stankovic is charged with any offence, he will have a full opportunity and plenty of time to prepare his defence. He may wish to refer to some of the matters to which the hon. Member referred. The House will understand how prejudicial it would be to any subsequent procedures, and to Major Stankovic's interests, if I were to say anything at all about the matters today. I ask the hon. Gentleman to give serious thought to those considerations.

One point to which I can refer, because it falls within my responsibilities, is the Army's support for Major Stankovic, which the hon. Gentleman believes is inadequate. I can confirm that Major Stankovic is receiving Army support, as I made inquiries about this matter—and this matter alone—as late as yesterday. He is entitled to the assistance of what is called a soldier's friend. His commanding officer has advised him on that entitlement, and a soldier's friend has been appointed. An individual may choose any Army officer who is not in the chain of command or a potential witness. I am glad that I can assure the hon. Gentleman on that point.

I also assure the hon. Gentleman that if charges are not brought, the matter will be dealt with, so far as our procedures are concerned, in an expeditious and fair manner. Other than that, there is very little that I can say that would not be open to misinterpretation as interference in the due process of the investigation.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I understand the difficulties that the Minister faces in terms of the legalities. The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) raised some procedural matters—for example, the failure to provide an inventory of the personal effects taken from Major Stankovic's home—which the Minister could properly deal with. Any of us who had had items removed from our home would feel, at the very least, that we should have a proper inventory of all that was taken. The hon. Gentleman referred to Major Stankovic's medals, and perhaps the Minister might also be able to address that point. Will he ensure that the MOD police provide an inventory of all items taken from the major's home?

Dr. Reid

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but he will know that the fine distinction that he is able to draw between interfering with the process of an investigation and alleging any irregularities in the procedures of the investigation is one that might not be apparent to every objective observer. On these occasions, it is as well to err on the side of caution so that there is not seen to be any ministerial interference in an independent investigation.

The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) will know that the proceedings of the House will be watched, listened to and read by a number of people, including the chief constable of the MOD police who will, by this afternoon or tomorrow morning, be well aware of the questions that have been asked. He will be aware also, no doubt, that when the procedure is finished, hon. Members such as the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Tatton may wish to return to those questions. Even without my directly intervening in any way, the casual observer might conclude that the matters would be attended to.

I shall ask whether such an important matter as this debate, which is relevant to general police matters, can be brought to the attention of the chief constable of the MOD police. That may suffice to meet the hon. Gentleman's point without direct intervention.

Mr. Dalyell

To pursue the point raised by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), I would never dream of asking my hon. Friend the Minister to interfere in an investigation; the issue that I raised was the behaviour of the military police, as described in the public prints, which appeared not to be acceptable to a possibly distinguished and brave man.

Dr. Reid

I hear what my hon. Friend says, but it is a fine philosophical point to draw a distinction between the behaviour of the police investigating—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr Michael J. Martin)

Order. It is time for the next debate.

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