HC Deb 10 May 2004 vol 421 cc21-39 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Geoffrey Hoon)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would first like to bring the House up to date in relation to the current security situation in Iraq. Recent weeks have seen British forces, our coalition allies and the Iraqi police facing violent attacks in southern Iraq. This weekend saw the most violence so far, with more than 100 engagements between violent insurgents and coalition forces. Eleven British soldiers and one Dane were injured in those clashes. Our forces have captured a very large quantity of arms and ammunition from the Muqtada militia. The insurgents are armed with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and a wealth of automatic weapons. We have captured 10 multi-launch rocket tubes, 300 mortar rounds and three wire-guided missiles just over this weekend.

The upsurge in violence appears to have followed calls at some Friday prayers for attacks against the coalition. Many of those who responded have a violent and criminal background that pre-dates the arrival of the coalition in Iraq last year. They are thugs, not freedom fighters. They do not enjoy the support of the majority of people in Iraq, who welcome the strong security action that we are taking. These attacks against Iraqis and Iraqi institutions are a challenge to the rule of law—an attempt to disrupt reconstruction efforts and deliberately to damage the transition to a democratic Iraq. No sensible person can condone these attacks: everyone should support our effort to deal with them in the interests of the Iraqi people.

The situation in both Basra and al-Amarah remains tense, but the Iraqi police are patrolling and are engaged in other security tasks. Further violence cannot be ruled out in the coming days, and British and Iraqi forces will continue to confront such challenges. As ever, they will do so with the minimum necessary use of force and with great care to avoid unnecessary impact on the wider population.

Last week, my right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for the armed forces made a statement about allegations of abuse by UK forces in Iraq. I would like to deal with developments since that statement. There have been further details and images of abuse by US forces, and further claims against British soldiers, published mainly in theDaily Mirror. Last week my right hon. Friend made it clear that if the allegations are found to be true, those responsible for damaging the otherwise excellent reputation of our armed forces will be rooted out and dealt with. The unauthorised actions of a very few must not be allowed to undermine the outstanding work of tens of thousands of British soldiers and civilians who have served with distinction, compassion and sensitivity in Iraq now for over a year. We regret the shadow that has been cast across the excellent work being undertaken, under very difficult circumstances, to establish security and to rebuild Iraq.

The United Kingdom requires its forces to act at all times within UK law, which means that they must comply with the Geneva convention and international humanitarian law. Allegations of improper behaviour will be thoroughly investigated. We are not in any way complacent about such allegations. The 33 cases of Iraqi civilian deaths, injuries and ill treatment, which my right hon. Friend mentioned last week, which have been or are under investigation testify to our determination. As he mentioned, 15 have already been resolved as having no case to answer and a further six are proceeding.

Those investigations were not begun in response to the International Committee of the Red Cross, to Amnesty International or, indeed, as the result of any pressure through the media. We investigate through the Royal Military Police special investigations branch immediately evidence is brought to hand. In those investigations, it is essential that the integrity of the criminal justice process be maintained. That can involve detailed and lengthy processes, but those are crucial to allow the necessary impartial evaluation of the evidence. I can confirm today that two cases have reached an advanced stage with decisions on prosecutions pending.

Obviously, it is important that the legal processes should be completed independently, but I want to say on behalf of the British Government that we unreservedly apologise to any Iraqis where the evidence shows that they have been mistreated, whether that is, as Amnesty International has set out in recent correspondence, during the general interaction between British troops and Iraqi citizens on the ground, or in the more specific issues raised by the ICRC about Iraqis detained in British-controlled facilities.

The confidential report from the ICRC to Ambassador Bremer in February dealt with detention issues. We have always maintained a close and constructive relationship with the Red Cross in Iraq. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the armed forces had a meeting with Dr. Jacob Kellenburger, the ICRC president, in May last year, and officials from the Ministry of Defence met the ICRC in April. It has been the practice of the ICRC to keep such reports confidential, not only to maintain a positive working relationship between Governments and the ICRC, but to protect those mentioned in them. It is important that that confidentiality is respected. Roland Hugenin-Benjamin of the ICRC said at the weekend: "We usually do this in direct confidential contact with the detaining power. We do not believe very much that there is a lot of interest for the prisoners themselves of having those kind of issues exposed in the public domain."

The interim report in February dealt with ICRC visits to coalition facilities between March and November last year. It raised three specific concerns in respect of British forces' treatment of prisoners and internees. Since those issues are already in the public domain, it is appropriate for me to comment further.

The first issue is in respect of the death in custody of Baha Mousa, also known as Baha Maliki, last September. A Royal Military Police investigation was launched at the time. The case has featured frequently in the media since then and was raised by the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) during an Adjournment debate in January. It was the subject of an Amnesty International letter-writing campaign. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the armed forces wrote to Amnesty about the case on 11 November 2003 and again on 27 January. It follows, therefore, that by the time the ICRC referred to the case in its interim report in February, a thorough investigation was well under way and the Government had made frequent public comment on it.

The second concern raised by the ICRC in relation to the United Kingdom was in respect of the routine hooding of prisoners. That practice had already ceased in UK facilities from last September, and that change had been confirmed publicly.

In the third case, a detainee had claimed that his car was confiscated. We were not able to shed light on that case. The individual was briefed on our claims procedure and provided with a claim form. Nothing more has been heard from him.

The interim ICRC report was not seen by Ministers until very recently. That is because it was an interim report to Ambassador Bremer, passed to the United Kingdom in strict confidence. A follow-on, UK-specific report was, in any event, anticipated, and in the cases relevant to the UK armed forces, the action necessary to address the ICRC's concerns had been taken some five months before the report was actually issued. In February, therefore, officials at the permanent joint headquarters judged that there was no action that Ministers needed to take, at least until any further reports were received. Essentially, all the material the report contained dealing with issues relevant to the United Kingdom had already been dealt with.

Since the programme of ICRC visits last year, we have opened a new divisional temporary detention facility in southern Iraq. The ICRC visited the site before it opened and has visited it twice since, in February and April. It is due to visit again next week. We remain committed to consultation with the ICRC and to complying fully with ICRC requests for access. The ICRC has yet to submit a formal report to the Government in respect of the two visits carried out, but it has provided working reports to our forces in theatre. It is fair to say that the ICRC is generally satisfied with our approach and describes conditions of internment as "fairly good".

We will obviously continue to work closely with the ICRC to ensure that prisoners' concerns are addressed. In the light of recent publications, we judge that if the ICRC were willing to publish its report, the United Kingdom Government would have absolutely no objection.

In addition, recent representations have been made by a number of other groups, including Amnesty International, making allegations about incidents, including some of which the Ministry of Defence was not previously aware. Those incidents do not involve allegations about detainees. We will always take such credible allegations seriously. As a consequence, at the beginning of March, we began a thorough trawl of the records of units produced in Iraq since the commencement of operations last year. That is a considerable task, and we expect it to last a few more weeks. I assure the House that if it reveals further examples of incidents that merit formal investigation, investigations will follow. In turn, if British forces are found to have acted unlawfully, the appropriate legal action will be taken. That has happened in every single case so far.

Those thorough and detailed investigations have also been necessary in relation to the photographs published by theDaily Mirror some days ago. Those photographs are central to accusations concerning the behaviour of British troops, in particular, the Queen's Lancashire Regiment. I can tell the House that as a result of those further investigations the SIB has informed me that there are strong indications that the vehicle in which the photographs were taken was not in Iraq during the relevant period. Additional lines of inquiry are being pursued to corroborate that fact.

The SIB has interviewed at length the soldier described by theDaily Mirror as "Soldier C". We are grateful to "Soldier C" for coming forward. However, I can assure the House that the allegation at the centre of his evidence, which is once again the case of Baha Mousa, has already been investigated and the case is currently with the Army legal services for consideration. When interviewed by the RMP, "Soldier C" did not have any new evidence to add to what was already known as a result of our investigations. Indeed, as I have already mentioned. those allegations were widely covered in other newspapers many months ago. I leave it to the House to judge why they have been recycled in that way.

In conclusion, we are determined to see through the task in Iraq according to standards of behaviour set out in the Geneva convention and international humanitarian law. We will not hesitate to act where those high standards are not followed, and we will investigate when serious allegations are brought to our attention. But we should not lose sight of the fact that thousands of our service personnel continue to serve their country with great distinction in Iraq and around the world. We are appalled by the allegations made against an unrepresentative small number, but that will not diminish our admiration of, respect for and pride in those who continue to serve their country with such distinction.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for providing an advance copy earlier today. Nothing should detract from the fact that we on the Conservative Benches have the highest confidence in, and admiration for, the professionalism, courage and skill of the men and women of the British armed forces serving in Iraq and elsewhere.

Will the Secretary of State agree that, as the coalition seeks to bring democracy, stability and freedom to the broken country of Iraq, the promotion of the rule of law in the chaotic and disastrously ill-planned post-conflict environment must come first? Will he further agree that the military do not see themselves as being above the law and that the hard lessons of earlier counter-insurgency operations have been well learned by the British Army?

The House will be aware that Britain ratified the additional 1977 protocols to the 1949 Geneva conventions and that article 75 of the first protocol specifically prohibits "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment … and any form of indecent assault". As I said in the House last week, if the recent allegations against British soldiers are found to be true, they must be proceeded against with the full rigour of military law.

I understand that Amnesty International has reported to the MOD on several occasions since May of last year, alleging that abuses by British soldiers were taking place in Iraq. When did the Secretary of State first see those reports? What steps did he then take and what actions were taken by the chain of command to deal with them? If he did not see those reports, who in his Department did and what did they do about them?

In respect of the ICRC, is the Secretary of State really being serious in telling the House that neither he nor any other Minister in the MOD was made aware of the ICRC report until very recently because it was given to the British Government in confidence? For goodness sake, who on earth is running the MOD? Who is authorised to see important and confidential documents from the ICRC?

The Government's failures in that regard must lend further credence to the view that they have lost their grip on their policy in Iraq. If the Secretary of State did not know about the document, he most emphatically should have done and he is unacceptably complacent and negligent in not having done so. Even if he did not see it himself, when exactly was the ICRC report received by the MOD and who dealt with it? When were investigations commenced into the assertions that it made?

When precisely did the Secretary of State himself see the report and did he ensure that a copy was passed to the Prime Minister? And if not, why not? As the document has been published today, will the Secretary of State officially publish the ICRC report in full on this side of the Atlantic? Surely, there can now be no reason for him not to do so.

How can the Secretary of State account for the reply of the Minister of State for the armed forces, given to my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) in the House last Tuesday, that: "To date, I have received no such reports, but some may be in the process of being compiled"? —[Official Report, 4 May 2004; Vol. 420, c. 1216.] Does that not show that at the very least the Minister was in dereliction of his duty, or had the Secretary of State or his officials simply forgotten to tell him? Was it just the Government's continual, serial complacency?

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the ICRC brought its concerns to the attention of the coalition forces on several occasions, orally and in writing, throughout 2003? When were British commanders in MND—multinational division—south-east first made aware of the alleged abuse of prisoners by British forces?

In the light of these allegations, how many members of the British armed forces have been investigated and how many are currently being investigated? How many Iraqis are currently in British detention and how have they been graded? Given the seriousness of the cuts by the Government in the military training programme, is the Secretary of State himself entirely satisfied that British troops deployed to Iraq, including members of the Territorial Army, were given a full and detailed training package on handling prisoners and on their obligations under the Geneva conventions? Did the British servicemen who took part in investigations at Abu Ghraib make complaints at any time about maltreatment and irregularities at the prison?

The Government are causing a great deal of unwanted and unnecessary uncertainty by their persistent and wilful failure to give substantial answers to clear questions on those matters. At one moment, the Prime Minister claims that he is in discussion with the Americans over further troop deployments; yet within hours his spokesman denies it. At one moment, the Minister for the armed forces comes to the House to claim that he has not received the ICRC report, only for it to be announced yesterday that the MOD received that report in February this year. The Government's handling of these events is part and parcel of their fundamental and tragic incompetence and failure in the post-conflict planning for Iraq.

The Government must now set to and set out with clarity their plans for the remaining 51 days—only 51 days—leading to the transfer of power, and deal in detail with the many questions that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition has been asking, but which remain as yet unacceptably, and for the Government embarrassingly, unanswered. Today, the Secretary of State has a chance to come clean.

Finally, there are no circumstances under which the brutal and disgusting humiliation of disarmed and helpless prisoners can be excused. The replaying of those images day after day throughout the middle east and indeed the wider world has the potential to undermine the significant gains that have been made towards the goals of peace, stability and freedom in Iraq. Furthermore, the apparent ignoring of the Geneva conventions invites our enemies to do the same and increases the existing dangers to our servicemen and women.

The Government's greatest and most immediate task is to restore the confidence of the British people and the people of Iraq both in what we are seeking to do in that country and, most especially, in the reputation and good name of the British Army.

Mr. Hoon

I regret to say that the hon. Gentleman uncharacteristically failed to listen to my statement; otherwise he would have noticed that I had answered all the questions—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—that he set out in his bluster, but I will repeat them. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I will not allow anyone to shout down the Secretary of State.

Mr. Hoon

I will repeat the answers so that the hon. Gentleman can hear them, yet again, having had the benefit of reading the statement. Unfortunately, he obviously prepared his bluster before he came into the Chamber.

Amnesty International has written a number of letters to the Ministry of Defence about allegations concerning British troops, but, as I set out in my statement, most of those allegations—indeed, all but one letter—concerned the general interaction between British troops on the ground and Iraqi citizens, as British soldiers have gone about their security tasks in Iraq. That is obviously important. I am in no way condoning any manner of illegality by British troops, but that is quite different from the nature of the allegations made in relation to detainees. As far as I am aware, Amnesty International wrote one letter to the Department specifically about the concerns that it had last May, a year ago. That was replied to, and investigations were undertaken by the Ministry of Defence into those allegations. I have not received any further letter from Amnesty International about those allegations. Indeed, a letter was received today and I saw a letter from two weeks ago—neither of which mentioned those early, year-old allegations, which, as I say, have been thoroughly investigated.

As for the ICRC, again, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the armed forces said that he had not read that report. Again, I set out very carefully the reasons for that. That was an interim report in February, and by the time that it had been considered in the Ministry of Defence, each and every allegation—the three allegations specifically dealing with the role of British troops—had already been dealt with. That was the judgment of officials in the permanent joint headquarters, having dealt with those matters already, as a result of action by Ministers. I make no apology for saying that. Ministers instructed that those investigations should take place. Those investigations were continuing and continue today because, obviously, it is not a matter for Ministers to decide whether soldiers should be prosecuted. It is however a matter for Ministers to decide whether investigations should be properly pursued. That is precisely what happened.

The further point that I made in my statement was that this was an interim report, pending a further specific report from the ICRC in relation to the United Kingdom's responsibilities to detainees. As I set out in that statement, it clearly indicates that, as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, the ICRC is generally happy with the steps that we have taken at our facilities. The material that has been put before the ICRC and the consultation that we have had on regular basis with it has satisfied it that we are imposing proper standards and proper procedures in those areas for which we are responsible.

I mentioned as well that 33 cases had been the subject of investigation—going back to the more general matters, not matters concerned with detainees. I indicated to the House that 15 of those had been resolved without there being any case to answer and that a further six were still being pursued through the system.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD)

I welcome the statement and thank the Secretary of State for early sight of it. I know from my experience that the vast majority of armed forces measure up to the highest possible standards of professionalism and conduct and are a credit to our nation, but wrongdoing, if proven, must be punished. So may I ask the Secretary of State about the Red Cross report? That report clearly refers, as he accepts, to UK forces, including the death in custody of one individual. That report should have been brought directly to the attention of UK Ministers and to Parliament. Why was it not? If the Minister of State for the armed forces has not read the report, did he know of its existence?

The Red Cross says that it notified UK officials at Doha of potential problems in April 2003. Can the Secretary of State now confirm that? If UK military advisers in the region were informed of potential problems, why did they not pass on those concerns to the Government? It has sometimes been suggested that the UK Government wield little influence with the coalition, but can it really be the case that a report from the Red Cross that directly referred to the role of UK forces was given to coalition authorities, including Paul Bremer, but that he did not bother to tell UK Ministers?

Can I ask about the report from Amnesty International? Did the Secretary of State see this report last May when Amnesty says that it sent it?

On another specific matter, last week, I asked the Minister for the armed forces about a fusilier who was arrested last year after developing photos apparently showing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. What charges have been brought against this man? Will the Secretary of State say?

This House of Commons voted to send our troops to war. If there is any doubt whatsoever about their actions, it is this House of Commons that should be told immediately. Why were we not?

Mr. Hoon

A common thread runs through each of the three examples that the hon. Gentleman has raised. In each of those cases, there was a thorough and proper investigation the moment those allegations were notified to the Ministry of Defence. Let me make it clear. They were not notified to the Ministry of the Defence by the ICRC, by Amnesty International or by the press. They were notified as a result of the proper procedures that are undertaken to safeguard the Iraqi people and, indeed, our own forces from these kinds of allegations. Not all of the allegations will be founded. A thorough, proper investigation took place in each of the examples that he has cited. Therefore, it was not necessary to act upon the ICRC recommendation five months later after the investigation was under way.

In a similar respect, the so-called Amnesty International report that the hon. Gentleman mentioned was a letter. I have dealt with the letter already. It was sent a year ago, and it was investigated properly and thoroughly. Amnesty International has not subsequently raised those cases. Similarly, with regard to the fusilier that he mentioned, that soldier is the subject of a process that could lead to criminal prosecutions.

In conclusion, I say in relation to each of the three examples that the hon. Gentleman cites that he would not wish Ministers, Members of Parliament or anyone else in a position of political authority to be interfering in a proper legal process to determine whether those individuals are or are not subject to criminal prosecution.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab)

As my right hon. Friend knows, I have supported action to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein since the 1990s. As he also knows, I was appointed as special envoy to the Prime Minister on human rights in Iraq in May 2003. Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explain why his officials failed to show me the ICRC reports when they arrived?

Mr. Hoon

I am in exactly the same position in answering my hon. Friend's question as I was in answering questions from the Opposition. As far as officials were concerned, the interim report contained material about the United Kingdom that had already been resolved. Therefore, there was no need, as far as the interim report was concerned, for Ministers to be involved.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con)

Of course, the Secretary of State is right to say that the overwhelming majority of British troops are doing what they have to do properly in Iraq, but they are likely to come more into harm's way as a result of these exposures and also because of the way in which we went into this conflict in the first place. Many of us said that it would make us look much more like an army of occupation than an army of liberation. Can the Secretary of State just clarify what General Sir Michael Walker meant at the recent Defence Committee sitting when he said that we fight with the Americans, but not as the Americans?

Mr. Hoon

General Sir Michael Walker was responding to a specific observation from—if my memory serves me well—General Sir Mike Jackson and he was saying that the way in which British troops are trained, organised and deployed particularly on peacekeeping operations is not precisely the same as that of the United States or, indeed, of any other country. Each country rightly maintains its own discipline, ethos and way of committing forces into operations.

Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend has clearly now had an opportunity to read very carefully the Red Cross report. Can he therefore confirm to the House that the Red Cross report is not just about individual cases, but concludes that there was a consistent pattern of brutal behaviour and that the abuse and humiliation of detainees was systematic? If his case is that this is not relevant to the UK because it was carried out by US service personnel, can he tell the House what concerns and protests were expressed to the US authorities about the report? Does he accept that brutality by any member of the coalition forces is bound to increase the resistance and the risks to all members of the coalition forces? In retrospect would it not have been wiser and more effective for those protests and concerns, if they happened, to have been expressed at the highest ministerial level and not at some operational level?

Mr. Hoon

I do not disagree with my right hon. Friend, especially in his closing comments. Obviously, the report, passed by the ICRC to Ambassador Bremer, an American, was for American consideration, just as it was for British consideration. As I have repeatedly said, the United Kingdom carefully considered the cases that the report raised which affected the position of British troops, and we had already dealt with those matters, specifically as far as the UK was concerned.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)

Why was not Operation Stewart implemented as planned last autumn? The Secretary of State will know that had it been so, the arrest warrant issued by the Islamic court against Muqtada al-Sadr would have ensured that he was lifted at a time both of a relatively benign security environment and of our choosing, so avoiding much chaos later.

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to go into precise operational detail I can, however, say that he is right: an opportunity was being considered for the most appropriate occasion on which to execute the arrest warrant. That appropriate occasion has still to arise.

Mrs. Helen Liddell (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the morale of the families of serving troops will be badly affected by the allegations, and that will not have been helped by the opportunism of some Opposition Members. Will he confirm that UK troops are given training and are aware of their obligations under the Geneva convention and of their other international responsibilities, and that every allegation is investigated rapidly?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her observations. I assure her and the House that appropriate training is given to our armed forces on their legal obligations. There are appropriate people at each level to give appropriate advice. In this conflict, perhaps more than in any other conflict, lawyers have been close to the front line providing up-to-date information and advice on the obligations that British forces have in international law.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con)

War tends to magnify anyone's personal qualities. The good can become heroic, but the bad can become sickeningly depraved. Will the Secretary of State confirm that nothing reported to him so far about the British Army in any way compares with the seemingly bestial conduct of some elements of the American army?

Mr. Hoon

I have to say that there have been some allegations about British troops which, if they stand up, are not allegations that any other member of the armed forces would want to be engaged with. That is why it is so important that we deal with these matters vigorously. That is the assurance I give to the House: when any allegations have been made, they are properly and seriously investigated. If appropriate, they are handed over to an independent authority to determine whether charges should be laid. There are actions that involve British troops which, once resolved—if they are resolved—against the individuals concerned, would worry us extremely, which is why I gave the apology that I did.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab)

I have the utmost respect for the professionalism of the British forces, as does every hon. Member. I include my son in that, who is serving in the Royal Marines and was in Basra for the invasion. Last week, however, a mother of a recruit at Catterick garrison came to see me with allegations of what he and his comrades had to endure. They were made to parade naked in front of their superiors while they made fun of their private parts. When they tried to cover their private parts, they were punched in the face if they did not uncover them. That needs to be investigated, but it shows that the problem is endemic in the British forces and needs to be rooted out at home.

Mr. Hoon

I do not for a moment accept that it is endemic. I know that my hon. Friend has raised the problem with the Minister for the armed forces and there will be a thorough and detailed investigation. Those allegations will be considered in the same detail and treated with the same concern as the investigations of those cases that I dealt with today.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP)

Whatever the truth or otherwise of the allegations against British forces in Iraq, the reputation of the UK's armed forces has been undermined by the constant drip of allegations. Does the Secretary of State accept that, to bring the matter to a head, we need a clear, independent investigation, rather than one conducted by the Royal Military Police? Only then can we be satisfied that justice has not only been done but been seen to be done.

Mr. Hoon

That is precisely what happens: there is an independent investigation conducted by those who are expert in and knowledgeable about military procedures. It is important that we give them our confidence in recognising the abilities that they bring to bear in looking at these cases. Moreover, if they judge that a case has proceeded sufficiently far, it is then handed over to an independent prosecuting authority to determine whether charges should be laid, so there is a significant degree of independence in the system that we already have.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that, having won the war, we are in acute danger of losing the peace, mainly because of the lack of a coherent peacekeeping policy by the United States? Does he accept that, in the context of any allegations against British soldiers, we need to be particularly visible in conducting our judicial processes? One thing that the people of Iraq know, and which we need to remember, is that far worse actions happened daily under Saddam Hussein, but those never got in the press or were raised in a court or anywhere else. The crucial difference in this situation is that we must be seen to be doing something about these allegations in a proper, judicial and public way.

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend is quite right in his conclusion. I would not in any way want to condone any unlawful mistreatment of Iraqi civilians by British soldiers simply because it was less bad than that perpetrated against the Iraqi people by Saddam Hussein. We cannot at any stage afford to depart from the high standards that we have set.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con)

The Government simply have to realise the devastating effect that the allegations are having on our policy, our reputation and our effectiveness in the middle east, and the only way of solving the problem is by ensuring complete openness.

I refer the Secretary of State again to an Amnesty press release from last Friday, which said: "Last July Amnesty raised allegations of torture and ill-treatment of Iraqi detainees"— not just people whom they met on the street, but detainees"— "in a memorandum to the US Government and the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq." When did the Secretary of State first see that? Is he saying that it was only very recently? It seems that he did not see it until allegations started to appear in the newspapers, whereas we would have expected him to have got a personal grip on the situation the first time that any such allegation was mentioned, to make sure that it did not happen again. It has happened, again and again. We want to know when the Secretary of State saw that information, and if he did not see it until about eight months after it was delivered to the CPA, why that was.

Mr. Hoon

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is confusing two different reports. I made it clear in my statement that, this time last year, there was a letter from Amnesty International making certain allegations about UK treatment of detainees. That was responded to and indications were given to Amnesty that there would be, as there was, a thorough investigation. Since then, Amnesty has raised a number of further cases; indeed, in a long memorandum submitted in April, repeated in a letter that arrived shortly before I left the Ministry of Defence this afternoon, it set out a considerable number of cases concerned not with detainees but with the interaction of British troops on the ground. Each of those cases has been thoroughly investigated.

Other cases brought forward by public interest lawyers have raised one or two matters that we were not aware of, but as I indicated to the House in my statement, a thorough search of all our files is under way to establish whether those are genuinely new cases or matters that have previously been investigated.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab)

Does the Secretary of State understand the depth of feeling among civilians in Iraq and their affront at the humiliation and torture that has been going on in their country in the name of the coalition forces? What will he and the US coalition forces do, from now, to reassure the civilian population in Iraq? Does he accept that an independent organisation such as Amnesty International is needed to start to rebuild any confidence among that population about what we are there to do?

Mr. Hoon

I broadly agree with my hon. Friend. She is right. I share the revulsion at the allegations and we need to investigate them thoroughly. However, may I give her an assurance? She says that we need to deal with matters now, but from the moment that any of the allegations were raised, the same process of thorough investigation has gone on—the same detailed co-operation with the appropriate independent organisation, which incidentally, is not Amnesty International, but the International Committee of the Red Cross. We have co-operated consistently with the ICRC and we will go on co-operating with its staff—providing facilities, allowing them to enter facilities, receiving their recommendations, and acting on them, where appropriate. However, the fact is that, by the time the ICRC's interim report was received, in each of the cases affecting British soldiers and British civilians, action had already been taken months and months and months previously. That is what I expect the House to hear from Ministers, and that is what I am saying.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon) (LD)

Do the events that have given rise to today's statement and the Secretary of State's experience in office lead him to the conclusion that there should be an immediate extension in the period of basic training given to Army recruits?

Mr. Hoon

A substantial review of training is under way. I recognise as a result of recent experience and of allegations of failures in the training system that we still have more work to do in that respect. If there is the slightest suggestion that British, forces are not adequately trained to deal wish the sometimes increasingly complex legal issues in international law, that must be addressed.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab)

The Secretary of State made it clear in his statement that the ICRC report was sent to Paul Bremer in February this year. Was that information shared with Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who was his deputy? To whom was it passed in the Ministry or Defence or the armed services here? What has happened to those who apparently concealed the information from the Secretary of State or other Ministers, which has led to the disgraceful impasse we are in today?

Mr. Hoon

May I make it clear that there was no concealment? The report to Ambassador Bremer was passed to Sir Jeremy Greenstock, then to the military representative in Iraq, and from there to the Permanent Joint Headquarters.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con)

Last Tuesday, I asked the Minister for the armed forces whether he had received any reports from the ICRC. He replied: "I have received no such reports".[—Official Report, 4 May 2004; Vol. 420, c. 1216.] He said "received", not "read", as the Secretary of State appears to be saying now. Will the Secretary of State clarify what the Minister of State meant? For the report to have been given to Members today by journalists seems most extraordinary, given the Minister of State's previous comments.

Mr. Hoon

I have set out the process very clearly and I have just answered the specific question on how the report was received by Government. I stand by my earlier point: there was no detailed analysis of the interim report specifically because officials judged—rightly—that each and every action affecting British soldiers had already been dealt with.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab)

The morale of our troops in Iraq, who are overwhelmingly committed, loyal and determined, will undoubtedly have been dented by the events of the past 10 days, but does the Secretary of State accept that their real problem is that the task is unclear and they are bogged down in the political basement, having entered without a clear strategy and with almost no exit strategy? Cannot our international reputation be restored only by going back to the United Nations and making it clear that, with the Americans, we will carry out a phased withdrawal of troops if the UN establishes a force to try to bring security and stability to Iraq?

Mr. Hoon

I simply do not accept my hon. Friend's premise that the task is not clear. As I set out in the opening part of my statement, dealing with current events in Iraq, there is a determined effort, supported by the overwhelming majority of Iraqi people, to resolve the security situation in Iraq. If my hon. Friend is seriously saying that we should abandon that effort and simply leave Iraq to the mercy of those with the biggest weapons and the most powerful guns, I think that he is wrong.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con)

The Secretary of State consistently misrepresents his own position, and he misrepresents the Minister of State. He never answered the question about which words were employed last Tuesday in this House. The Minister of State said that he had "received" no such material, not that he had not read it. When did the Secretary of State receive it? Downing street tells us that it received it in February. Therefore, at what time did he discuss it with the Prime Minister, and when did he respond and read it? Furthermore, is this not just another example of his not being accountable to anyone or responsible for anything?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman is uncharacteristically unfair and unkind. He misrepresents several points, not least what Downing street said about receiving the report. What Downing street said was that Government received it. It was indicating in the broadest sense that Government had received the report, and that officials, as I indicated in my statement, had acted on it. Officials made a proper consideration of the content of that interim report, which was analysed and dealt with, not least because, previously, appropriate action had properly been taken. If the hon. Gentleman were saying to the House that Ministers had failed to take action, I might just understand his criticism. The truth, however, is that Ministers dealt with the issue and made sure that appropriate action had already been put in hand.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)

Given the seriousness of the prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib jail, and in view of the statement by Secretary Rumsfeld that it occurred on his watch, is it not important, in order to show Iraqi civilians and the Arab and Muslim world our determination that these events should not recur and our revulsion at them, that at the very least Secretary Rumsfeld should resign? Nothing short of a dramatic signal of contrition at this stage will do.

Mr. Hoon

The Defence Secretary in the United States has set out his position. I know that there will be a thorough US investigation. What I am saying to the House is that at each stage, when proper allegations have been made, there have been thorough investigations of any such allegations. If such allegations require further action to be taken, that will be dealt with.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC)

The Secretary of State has just confirmed that hoods were used on detainees in Iraq between April and September last year? Does he not accept that prolonged use of hoods on detainees can itself constitute degrading treatment? Putting a hessian sack on someone's head is often the first step in the process of dehumanising a victim. Is he aware that following the publication of the Parker report on allegations of torture in Northern Ireland, the then Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, gave a solemn undertaking in the House that the British Army would never again use hoods as part of its interrogation purposes, which was enacted through a directive issued to the British Army by the Attorney-General? When did the policy change, and why was the House not informed?

Mr. Hoon

The policy did not change, and it was stopped.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that part of the difficulty in the American sector is not only the lack of training and lack of knowledge of the Geneva convention, but the apparent use of private security consultants, who appear to have egged on some of the abuses that have gone on in the American sector, and who are outside military discipline and military accountability? Will he assure the House that no such use is being made in British sectors of such personnel?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue, which I know is the subject of the US investigation. I give her the assurance for which she is looking.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)

In view of the fact that the report has been so widely leaked, will the Secretary of State publish the ICRC document and put it in the Library, so that we can all read it?

Mr. Hoon

As I set out in my statement, and as Conservative Front-Bench Members should be aware, one or two of them having previously been Ministers, the ICRC is an independent body. The ICRC made it clear this weekend that it regrets the publication of its report. In the course of my statement, I said that I am certainly willing, in the light of what has been published, to write to the ICRC and say that the Government have no objection whatever to the further publication of the report dealing specifically with the United Kingdom. Ultimately, it is a matter for the Red Cross, since it is its report, and it asserts confidentiality. Both the former Ministers on the Opposition Front Bench—the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), and especially the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who had responsibility for events in Northern Ireland, where the Red Cross has from time to time intervened—who are waving reports that have been leaked as if a leaked report having been published proves anything, really ought to grow up.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab)

Much more needs to be done about investigating the serious allegations against British military personnel. No distinction is made in the Arab world between the United States and us where the Iraqis are concerned. When we see these sickening and degrading photographs of all the abuses that have been perpetrated, how is it possible to believe that such practices took place without the knowledge of senior people, right up to the United States Defence Secretary? How can we take his apologies of last week seriously when he clings so pathetically to office? If those apologies carry any credibility he should go, and go quickly.

Mr. Hoon

I hear my hon. Friend's words. I have made it clear that the United Kingdom will consistently conduct proper investigations whenever allegations of this kind are made.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)

The Government were warned repeatedly before the war that invading a Muslim country would make terrorism worse, not better, and that the country was virtually ungovernable. The Secretary of State mentioned the wider security position. Can he tell us any more about his strategy? Are more troops to be sent? Are existing troop numbers adequate? What is the Government's eventual strategy for extricating us from this morass—or are they just hoping for the best while our troops are put in more and more danger?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the wider security position, which is what I tried to do at the beginning of my statement. It is important for the House to understand the complexity and difficulty, from time to time, of the security position. That is why we keep the question of sending more troops under constant review There have been occasions on which we have sent more troops to deal with specific problems, as and when the commanders on the ground judge it to be necessary. Obviously we will respond accordingly if that happens, but no decisions have yet been made to that effect.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway) (Lab)

Does the Secretary of State not understand that we are part of a collective enterprise—that he and the Prime Minister have taken credit in the past for what the United States has done, and that now we must take responsibility for what it has done as well? In doing that, will he answer the question put earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook)? What representations, in detail, have been made to the Americans about the sickening and proved allegations that have been made in recent weeks?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. and learned Gentleman may suggest that we have taken credit. I do not recall his giving us any credit. While I accept that we are part of a coalition, we have direct responsibility, as should be the case, for the conduct of our troops. That is why I have expressed so clearly and emphatically our determination to ensure that the highest standards of British troops down the ages will be maintained in this Iraq operation.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, regularly and as a matter of routine, every British serviceman and woman of whatever rank is taught not only about the rules of engagement but about the provisions of the Geneva convention?

Mr. Hoon

That is absolutely right, and it is central to training. As I said earlier, however, if training turns out to be insufficient in the light of the increasing complexity of modern international law, we shall certainly look at that again.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)

Does the training include a proper reporting mechanism for our troops and for civilians? Does my right hon. Friend agree that persons reporting on matters in the public domain need to use very temperate language in the interests of our serving troops? As he knows, the Cheshire Regiment is in Iraq at the moment.

Can my right hon. Friend throw any light on the use of black-and-white photographs by theDaily Mirror? It was an unusual choice of medium.

Mr. Hoon

As I have said, further investigations of theDaily Mirror photographs are continuing. As I have also said, it does not appear that the truck used in the photographs was in Iraq during the relevant period. Obviously, the investigations would include investigations of the photography and, indeed, the use of black-and-white photography. That may have surprised my hon. Friend; it certainly surprised me.

As for my hon. Friend's first question, it is important to have an appropriate reporting mechanism in which people can have confidence. I apologise for repeating this so often, but it is vital for us to have an effective investigatory system.

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (LD)

On the eve of war last year, the Prime Minister promised that a war would bring about an end to "The brutality of the repression—the death and torture camps, the barbaric prisons for political opponents, the routine beatings for anyone or their families suspected of disloyalty".—[Official Report, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 772.] When does the Secretary of State expect such brutality to end under the coalition's jurisdiction, and is not it time that we understood that such brutality is giving succour and encouragement to would-be terrorists around the globe?

Mr. Hoon

I resisted earlier the suggestion that, because Saddam Hussein treated his people appallingly, that was an excuse for anyone acting on behalf of coalition forces to behave in a similar manner, but I invite the hon. Gentleman to think carefully—perhaps he will look at what he has just said in tomorrow's Hansard—and ask whether he is comparing the activities of British troops with those of Saddam Hussein. I am sure that, when he looks at his words, he will regret having said them.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab)

The Secretary of State did not answer my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Cook) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Marshall-Andrews), so may I put the question to him again? We are in a coalition. We know that part of that coalition has been torturing, humiliating and killing prisoners in custody. That not only corrupts them; it corrupts us in the eyes of the world. Is not it time to go back to the United Nations, to get a credible force in there to help to secure the country, and to pull our troops out immediately?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend will be aware that the United Kingdom is determined to see a further United Nations Security Council resolution and that we are already in discussions with other members of the Security Council and of the United Nations to determine a resolution that will provide further legal authority for our forces in Iraq.

Mr. Edward Gamier (Harborough) (Con)

My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) asked the Minister of State for the armed forces a direct question on 4 May: had he received any external or other reports? The Minister of State responded without equivocation, "I have not". It is at column 1216 ofHansard—it is being shown to him now. That was, in the light of what we have heard today, a confusing answer. What was the time lag between external reports arriving in the Ministry of Defence and landing on Ministers' desks, and what was the time lag between the reports leaving Ministers' desks and going to the Army legal service, the Crown Prosecution Service or the Attorney-General? We need the answers.

Mr. Hoon

The hon. and learned Gentleman is far too expert in matters of law to need me to suggest to him that there are no specific dates for the time scale between each of those separate events that he has described. It is entirely a matter for those investigating a case how long the investigation should be before the case is put before the authority deciding on prosecution. It is then for the prosecution authority to decide how long it should take and indeed whether it requires any further investigation or evidence to determine whether charges should be brought. I did indicate in my statement that, in two cases in particular, we are close to that point.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North) (Lab)

Can we seek the agreement of our coalition partners that, as far as possible, all Iraqi deaths, whether in custody or not, should be registered, recorded, counted and where appropriate investigated?

Mr. Hoon

I would like to be able to agree with my hon. Friend; it would certainly make my life easier in answering questions of that kind. In the course of military operations, it is extraordinarily difficult to identify casualtie—swhether an individual has been seriously wounded, lightly wounded or killed. Unfortunately, that information is simply not always available. Clearly, where it is available, we try to record it, but there is a risk in recording it of under-recording the number of casualties.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

Did Ministers at any point discuss the conduct of our guards of prisoners and the way in which intelligence was extracted from Iraqis? Did they ever send out any instructions about how they wished those things to be conducted? Would it not have been better if Ministers had read the ICRC report and responded to the general allegations in it as well as the specific ones?

Mr. Hoon

Ministers did respond to the general allegations—one of which, as I said in my statement, concerned the practice of hooding, which by then had been stopped. It was not specifically related to the United Kingdom, but was taken as a reference to a previous practice that had been ended. Ministers and officials responded to the criticisms in the interim report, as they should have.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We now come to the main business.