HC Deb 18 July 2001 vol 372 cc393-401

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

10.17 pm
Mr. Martin Caton (Gower)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of civilian casualties at British military training areas in Kenya. I am particularly pleased to be able to do so before the summer recess, as this is an important matter and one about which I know there is growing public concern throughout the country.

In introducing this debate, I cannot help but cast my mind back three years to the last Parliament when we passed the Landmines Act 1998, and I can still remember the enormous pride that I felt as a new Back Bencher at the fact that our Government were demonstrating clear moral leadership in the world and making an eloquent statement about the value that they put on human life and well-being not just in our own country but throughout the world.

I know that during our debates on that Bill, I was not alone among Members of Parliament on both sides of the House in having in mind the heart-rending pictures that we had, seen in our newspapers and on our television screens as the campaign for that legislation developed, of young children killed and terribly maimed by anti-personnel mines. All too often, because terrible and sad conflicts have taken place on the African continent in recent years, those pictures were of African children—the innocent victims of current and historic wars in their home countries.

It was those pictures that came back to me just over a fortnight ago when I listened to a "You and Yours" radio programme about people in Kenya—mostly children—being killed, disabled and injured by unexploded munitions on military training grounds used by the British Army in the central part of that country.

The Observer of the same weekend carried a full-page article by Kamal Ahmed headed "Britain's secret killing fields", which provided its own specific and terrible images both visual and verbal that told the story of individual and family tragedies that resulted from, in most cases, children and young people happening on artillery shells or other ordnance which had failed to explode when initially fired and which had never been collected or cleared.

Since then, I have done some research and read a lot more personal case studies from people who live in the regions in which the two military training areas on which I wish to focus are set. I found the stories extremely moving, very distressing and quite shaming. I want to put some cases on the record this evening because it is important to keep the real human consequences of our actions—or inaction—at the centre of the debate. That can be lost sometimes if we deal only in statistics, history and geography.

First, to set the scene, I need to explain that the areas that I am talking about in Kenya are Archer's Post, near the Shaba game reserve, predominantly the tribal lands of the Samburu, and Dol Dol, close to the town of Nanyuki, mostly Masai lands in the shadow of Mount Kenya. Both areas have been used by the British Army, but not exclusively, for more than 50 years. I cannot prove that the examples that I shall cite involve the victims of British ordnance, but I will try to show that there is every likelihood that they do. There is every reason to believe that innocent civilians have been killed or crippled by British munitions and that that has happened ever since our Army started to use Kenyan training areas more than 20 years before independence was achieved in 1967.

I have read of specific cases dating back to 1979—for example, that of Lemura Kapisi Ole Kipese, who one afternoon in August that year was grazing his father's livestock when he saw an oval object with a spring attached to the end. When he tried to pick it up, the spring snapped and it dropped to the ground. The next thing he knew, he was in hospital in excruciating pain. He is still disabled. He says, "Since the poisonous bits of the explosive lodged in the lower parts of my body, my left leg had to be amputated. Besides, I lost the use of both arms, which were left paralysed." In the same year, Swaili Mpopwoki was even unluckier. An object that she picked up and then threw down blew her to smithereens. Her brother described the consequences, "Shrapnel lodged in her breast while pieces of metal hit her face making her blind and badly disfigured. She eventually died of her wounds." Moving forward 20 years, things do not seem to have changed very much. In September 1999, Peter Mwangi, a 14-year-old, took home what he thought was a metal stone. He hit it with a hammer, but it would not break, so he threw it into a fire and it exploded. He and three siblings were almost killed and one of them lost a leg. A nurse at Wamba hospital—the local hospital that deals with casualties from Archer's Post—described the condition of Mowli Lmolian Lekorian, when he was brought in, saying, "He was very badly injured. The scull was almost out; the leg, the abdomen and the eyes also." I shall not go on, but I could; there are many individual and family stories such as those. On average six children a year are killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance—unexploded, that is, until the children find it.

So who is responsible? Perhaps the first question is whose bombs and shells are doing the damage. The Kenyan, and once or twice, the American, armies have trained in those areas, but all the available evidence suggests that the British Army has been by far the most significant user of those training areas. The United Kingdom sends 3,000 to 3,500 soldiers to Kenya in any one year. Their use of artillery and mortars is now confined predominantly to the flatter areas of the Archer's Post range. That part of the country is home to the Samburu tribe, who are pasturalists—nomadic people moving to wherever there is good grazing. I am informed that around 20,000 of them live in the Archer's Post range area for part of the year.

Local people are sure that Dol Dol used to be exploited for similar heavy artillery manoeuvres in support of infantry training until some years ago, although the Ministry of Defence has informed me that it has no record of that taking place. It is agreed that the area has been restricted to the use of lighter weaponry in recent times. However, there is some evidence of relatively new white phosphorous bomb rounds being found on the range. In any case, other unexploded ordnance—perhaps from years ago—remains at Dol Dol, which is in the Masai tribal lands. The Masai are again, of course, a nomadic pasturalist people, and thousands of them live in the area.

Incidents that cause the sort of injuries that I have described mostly involve children herding the family animals. They come across the bombs and pick them up. A significant proportion of the ordnance is still dangerous and, for the unlucky ones, the bombs blow up, killing, maiming and burning them. In one incident, a child was evaporated because the explosion was so intense. We know that since 1940 at least 55 people have been killed and 101 injured in the Archer's Post and Dol Dol areas. The actual figures are estimated to be two or three times higher because many of the victims and their families are too scared of the Government to raise the issue.

We know that the British Army was in charge of the Archer's Post range until independence, by which time there had already been many deaths and injuries, and unexploded ordnance was left uncleared. Since 1991, the Kenyan army, lacking resources, has not had the capacity to use the range to any significant extent, so for 30 of the last 57 years, almost all the bombs and shells fired have been British. Evidence suggests that even in the 1970s and 1980s, the British used far more ammunition than did the Kenyans. Throughout the entire period, injuries and deaths among local people have continued.

Apart from the proportion of range times and the overall quantities of ammunition used by our Army, there is another reason to believe that our ordnance is responsible for a high percentage of the injuries. I refer to the way in which we use the ranges, particularly Archer's Post, compared with the methods used by the Kenyan army. There is a big difference. The British Army trains its soldiers in combat conditions that are as realistic as possible, so our artillery and mortars are aimed just ahead of where the soldiers are training. That means that the munitions land, and mostly explode, in the flatter areas of the range where, if they do not blow up, they are more likely to be found by the children of the nomadic tribes. When it could afford to test its artillery, the Kenyan army fired into the hills, where there have been no reports of accidents to date.

A preliminary report by David Taylor, a leading expert on unexploded ordnance, was commissioned by solicitors representing the victims and their families. It highlighted the fact that the Ministry of Defence accepts that, owing to those differing modes of operation, it left more bombs on site in low-lying areas than the Kenyan army is likely to have done. Taylor states that some and possibly all of the unexploded ordnance encountered is of British origin and would have been used by the British Army in live firing exercises. The implication is that British munitions were responsible for a significant proportion, and possibly all, of the deaths and injuries caused by unexploded ordnance in the Archer's Post and Dol Dol areas.

That leads us to the next question. Is the British Army doing everything that it can to prevent children from being blown to bits when they follow their parents' cattle or simply play in those areas? Are they kept out of the area during training and afterwards, when clearance is under way? Are the unexploded shells and bombs properly cleared after the training sessions?

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, I was a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, as was the former Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, Christopher Fraser. A couple of years ago, we went to Mpala farm, which is part of the territory to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, to undertake live firing exercises. Our impression was that the British Army was very careful to ensure that nobody strayed to the range. Indeed, because of the noise, it would have been difficult not to realise that the firing was taking place. The British Army takes its responsibilities seriously, and the military training that it undertakes is not only vital to Britain but a great asset to the Kenyan Government.

Mr. Caton

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. I think that the Kenyan Government welcome the activity. However, there is a lot of evidence that the Masai and other nomadic tribespeople do not view the use of the training areas as entirely beneficial.

There is evidence of people being able to get on to the ranges even when live firing is taking place, although that is not the substance of my speech. The solicitor representing the tribal people who are likely to take action against the British Government managed to get into one of the training areas when live firing was taking place, so I do not think that we should be complacent.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will forgive me if I paraphrase the Ministry of Defence position, according to written answers that I have received to parliamentary questions and information that I have read elsewhere. I am sure that he will correct me if I have misunderstood the Ministry's line, but I understand it to be saying that the clearance of munitions in training areas is the responsibility of the host nation, so it is up to the Kenyan Government to make the ranges safe for their tribespeople. The Ministry admits that it has become aware of civilian casualties recently. The date quoted is 1999, and frankly I find that incredible. I shall return to that point in a moment.

The Army says that since it found out what has been happening, it has been helping to spread information and assisting with the clear-up operation. In a written reply to me, my right hon. Friend the Minister referred to the large concrete signs outside live firing areas, with words of warning in English and Samburu. However, that does not take account of the fact that a majority of even the adult tribespeople, let alone the children, cannot read. Referring to Archer's Post, he informed me that the nomadic tribespeople have been grazing their animals in the area for a considerable number of years and are aware that some of the area is a … live firing military range as it has been for many years. That begs the biggest question. If that is the case, why are people being blown up? In any case, that statement does not seem to lie comfortably with the other point that my right hon. Friend drew to my attention—that range wardens employed throughout the year by the British Army instruct the local population about the dangers posed during live firing and from touching unexploded ordnance."—[Official Report, 16 July 2001; Vol. 372, c. 3W.] If that is necessary, it is clearly accepted that not all the tribespeople are already aware of the danger. Sadly, it appears from reports in the Kenyan media that most tribespeople are equally unaware of the work of those rangers. There is also evidence that people can and do get into the training areas where live ammunition is being fired.

It is true that the British Army started to carry out an annual clean-up operation last year. It is named Operation Pineapple. To date, 380 bombs have been collected, but my right hon. Friend informed me that only 64 sq km of the 1,500 sq km of the range have been cleared.

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him on raising an important subject. Does he agree that the House needs reassurance about what the British Army is doing in terms of clear-up? Whatever happened in the past, if our right hon. Friend can set out in detail what the British Army is doing now, we would be much reassured.

Mr. Caton

My hon. and learned Friend is right. That is the core issue, although there are related issues that I shall briefly address.

Our Army paid local people to help with the clear-up. About 60 people were employed at £2 a day each. The operation took 25 days, providing a sum total of £3,000 to the local economy. One cannot help asking whether that is the price that we are paying for six local children killed or maimed a year.

I return to the British Army claim that it was not aware of the problem of civilian casualties until 1999. That does not hold water. We have been in the area for more than 50 years. Until 1964 we were in sole charge of the range. Deaths and injuries were occurring then, too. British Army officers have given evidence at inquests into the deaths of locals killed by unexploded ordnance over many years. The deaths and injuries have continued at a fairly steady rate over those years. There are reports of British Army personnel taking injured children to hospital in 1986 and after. It stretches credulity too far to claim that our Army was entirely ignorant of those deaths and injuries until 1999.

What actually happened, I believe, is that by 1999 media interest was focusing on British activity in that part of Kenya and local representatives were investigating the possibility of legal action against the UK Government. That was the real impetus for the response that we have seen in the past couple of years. That legal action looks set to go ahead within weeks and there seems to be a very strong case indeed.

Tonight, I am not speaking about legalities or about whether the law is enough of an ass to decide that a poor country such as Kenya must pick up the tab in the end, even though the injuries were caused by British munitions and the United Kingdom is a rich country, far better able, in every sense, to deal with the problem. I am not trying to preview the proceedings that may take place in the British courts on the issue this year. However, if we examine international laws and conventions, I cannot help wondering whether our activity in the Archer's Post and Dol Dol areas complies with article 28 of the UN draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, which states: Military operations shall not take place in the lands and territories of indigenous peoples unless otherwise freely agreed upon by the people concerned. Hazardous material shall not be stored or disposed of on the land of indigenous peoples. Governments shall take measures to assist indigenous peoples whose health has been affected by such material. Both the Masai and the Samburu are classified as minority groups in a state set-up—a classification that is recognised in various international human rights instruments. These people have certainly not freely agreed to the use of their tribal territories for the military operations. Apart from the mutilation of their children, they blame the military activity in their areas for considerable environmental damage that undermines their traditional grazing patterns.

I recognise that this is ultimately an issue for the Kenyan Government, but I do not believe that we can wash our hands of all responsibility if we know or believe that our Army is involved in activity that could be undermining the basic human rights of these indigenous peoples. I do not know whether that is, or will be, a matter for law, but that is not the main point that I have been trying to make. I have tried to concentrate on our moral responsibility.

I want my Government to be talking the language that they were talking back in 1998 when we were discussing the land mines question. I want us to value the lives of these Kenyan children as we value the lives of the children who live near Salisbury plain or any other British range. As we know that we have it in our power to repay our debt to the victims, their families and communities and to prevent these terrible incidents from happening again, surely we have a duty to act.

10.36 pm
The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) for securing a debate on this important subject. I also thank him for the series of written questions that he has tabled, which I have answered in full.

While we should recognise the emotive and sensitive nature of the issue, it is equally important for us to set it in a factual context. This debate allows me to place on record an explanation of how the British Army conducts its training in Kenya, to demonstrate that we are taking all reasonable measures to ensure that that training is conducted as safely as possible and to dispel any enduring misunderstandings. I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) for pointing out that that is an important part of the debate.

My Department has received notification that a number of Kenyans will be making claims for compensation as a result of injuries allegedly suffered as a consequence of the use of training areas in Kenya by the British Army. Clearly, any accident caused by unexploded ordnance is a matter for great regret, and I do not want to minimise that fact in any way. However, no one should claim a monopoly on understanding the suffering of the victims or their families.

My Department will deal with any claims in accordance with its usual procedures, and pay compensation if its legal liability is proven. In the circumstances, my hon. Friend will understand that it would be inappropriate for me to comment further on the particulars of the claims at this stage.

I hope that my hon. Friend shares my view that our armed forces need to be able to operate safely and effectively anywhere in the world, and that in order to achieve that, they need to train in the widest variety of environments and climates. The British Army has used training areas in Kenya for many years. The facilities provided to us by the Kenyans provide it with excellent opportunities to conduct training in a variety of arduous conditions, including arid and jungle environments. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) alluded to his short experience of visiting a training area, and I am grateful to him for his contribution.

Some 3,000 British troops train in Kenya each year. The number of troops exercising at any one time tends to vary between 100 and 750. They are supported by the British Army training liaison staff Kenya, who comprise 10 permanent staff, 27 temporary duty staff and 144 full-time locally employed staff. In addition, we also employ more than 100 part-time locally engaged staff on an as-required basis.

I am grateful to the Kenyan Government for providing us with these vital training opportunities. If we cannot train in those conditions, we cannot operate in them. Many of the regiments that have run our short-term training teams in Sierra Leone previously trained in Kenya. Indeed, the 1st Battalion, the Light Infantry, which was in Sierra Leone until recently, was in Kenya earlier this year. All those regiments were able to perform their demanding and crucial tasks and make a significant contribution to peace in Sierra Leone, thanks to the experiences that they gained by exercising in places such as Kenya.

We use nine separate training areas in Kenya, and they offer a variety of environments and conditions. Two—Archer's Post and Dol Dol—are managed by the Kenyan Department of Defence; Kathendini is managed by the Kenyan wildlife service, and the remaining six are on privately owned land, under arrangements with the individual landowners. The activities that we undertake differ from area to area. For example, at Solio and Lewa Downs, we primarily carry out acclimatisation training. Dol Dol is used for company and platoon-level dry training. Archer's Post is used for collective battalion-level training, which involves some live firing. Each six-week detachment to Kenya will train in several areas before coming together for two weeks of collective training at Archer's Post. In general, we do not use each area for more than five or six weeks each calendar year.

In addition to the three battle group exercises, which are known as Grand Prix and take place every year between October and April, several smaller exercises at troop, company or squadron level also occur. They include engineering troop and squadron exercises, a medical squadron exercise and an explosive ordnance disposal squadron exercise. Each takes place annually. In addition to providing us with excellent training opportunities, the engineering and medical exercises give direct support to the Kenyan community through local construction projects and the provision, through links with a non-governmental organisation, of primary health care to the local community.

Before I talk about the clearance exercises, I shall explain that in Kenya, the British Army trains using live ammunition at Archer's Post and on some privately owned land, with the agreement of the landowners. That training is conducted in accordance with both British Army and local regulations. On the other hand, we use Dol Dol as a dry range, and do not conduct live firing there. The only ammunition we use there, and at other dry training areas, is blank rounds and thunderflash noise simulators.

Let me explain the measures that we have put in place to ensure that the British Army's use of training areas in Kenya is as safe as possible. Safety is paramount in all aspects of British Army training, including the use of live ammunition. Strict regulations, applicable both in the UK and overseas, govern the issue, carriage, firing and clearance of live ammunition. We aim to declare, record and, when possible, destroy unexploded ordnance as soon as possible after it has been fired. That is the case wherever we train—and it is achieved by the troops who exercise with live ammunition, who sweep the area visually before departing from a training area.

Depending on the terrain of the training area, there is, of course, always the possibility that a small percentage of unexploded munitions may not be located immediately. I hope that my hon. Friend will be interested to note that it is normal practice for the host nation to be responsible for the clearance of military training areas, and that the practice is followed in Kenya for the facilities managed by the Kenyan Department of Defence.

That does not apply to privately owned land, and for many years the British Army has cleared any unexploded ordnance from such land in Kenya, as required by our arrangements with local landowners. That takes place during Exercise Pineapple, to which my hon. Friend referred. It occurs annually at the end of the exercise season in Kenya.

In May 2000, the 30-man team conducting the clearance work on private land mounted a small clearance operation at Archer's Post to support the Kenyan Department of Defence. As a result of that initial work, we have increased our support to the Kenyans, and in May this year some 100 Royal Engineers specialists participated in a similar exercise. As my hon. Friend said, a total of 64 sq km of the most heavily used parts of the area were cleared. Some 271 items of live ammunition were destroyed and therefore made safe. A list of those items will be examined by ammunition experts to establish the provenance of munitions. Given that several armies train in Kenya, that may take time.

I must also add that it is unlikely that we will establish with any certainty who fired all the munitions, given that some of the ammunition was old and without markings. That differs from my hon. Friend's argument, and I hope that he notes the position.

Clearly, we also have an interest in ensuring that the conduct of military training in Kenya is carried out in as safe a manner as possible. To achieve this, we work alongside the Kenyans, who retain overall responsibility for range safety. Specifically, we continue to provide infrastructure support and range wardens, and to educate the local population about range safety. I would like to take this opportunity to explain a little more about that aspect of the work.

Our staff in Kenya liaise closely with the Kenyan Department of Defence, the district administration and local leaders to ensure that local communities know where and when we train. We take every possible precaution to minimise danger to the Kenyan people. We conduct helicopter sweeps of the danger areas before commencing training, to check that the areas are clear of people and livestock. After training, the troops mount visual searches of the impact areas to ensure that, as far as possible, any unexploded ordnance is disposed of or clearly marked.

We have also built and equipped a range control building at Archer's Post that is manned whenever we use the training area. We liaise with other users of the range to ensure that all troops using the area use the same safety procedures. We employ and train Kenyan range wardens, whose job it is to control access to the training area when firing is in progress. The wardens also travel between the communities near Archer's Post and the indigenous population that roams in the area, to educate local people about the dangers posed by entering the training area during live firing, and by touching unexploded ordnance. We also deploy British personnel, and we fly danger flags at Archer's Post when we are training.

I had wanted to make some further points, but my hon. Friend took slightly longer than I had anticipated because of the interventions. I have tried to set out the range of activities in which we are involved in connection with the use of the ranges, and to explain why they are important in terms of training our own forces. That has also been recognised by others when our forces are deployed in humanitarian and peaceful initiatives. I have also tried to explain the safety measures that have been put in place.

I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend of the genuine, sincere and determined way in which we are tackling this issue. We benefit from the use of these ranges from a training perspective, and the Kenyans benefit in many other ways. I have tried to respond to the debate in a structured and informative way. However, if my hon. Friend feels that he needs more information, I suggest that he writes to me during the recess, and I shall do my best to help him.

Mr. Howarth

Is it not the case that the British troops have every interest in ensuring that the ordnance is cleared? If it is not cleared, it poses a real danger to our troops.

Mr. Ingram

Absolutely. Ours is not the only Army that uses that particular range, and as my hon. Friend said, the Kenyans have a responsibility as well.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order. Adjourned at thirteen minutes to Eleven o'clock