HL Deb 19 May 1992 vol 537 cc576-80

4.46 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to a Private Notice Question which was asked this afternoon in another place. It relates to the inquest into the deaths of British soldiers during the Gulf war from friendly fire. The Answer is as follows: "I am sure the whole House would wish to join me in extending its deepest sympathy to the families of each of the soldiers who died in this tragic incident.

"The inquest sitting in Oxford into the deaths of nine soldiers killed when their two Warriors were hit by two Maverick missiles fired by two US A-10 aircraft has returned a verdict that each of them was killed unlawfully.

"The Government and relevant legal authorities are considering as a matter of urgency the implication of the jury's finding and verdict. The DPP has asked to see all the relevant papers held by Her Majesty's Coroner and the Ministry of Defence and will consider all the circumstances of the case. The MoD is providing its papers to the DPP. I understand that the DPP has pointed out in a press release that there is no power to prosecute a foreign national in England or Wales for any offence of murder or manslaughter allegedly committed abroad.

"I should also like to take this opportunity to respond to a number of points made during the inquest.

"I am aware that there has been some criticism with regard to the provision of information by the MoD to the families. I can assure the House and the families that our intention has always been to provide as full an account as possible. It was not until 10th July that General Johnston. US Marine Corps, wrote to our joint headquarters at High Wycombe with statements from the pilots answering points raised during our own inquiry. The MoD wrote to the families on 23rd July as soon as it was possible to provide an authoritative account based on the findings of the board of inquiry.

"On the question of procedures in future military operations our own board of inquiry recommended that standard operating procedures for close air support operations must in future include instructions that a grid reference or a latitude and longitude is included in mission briefs and that this is always acknowledged by the pilots. Work on this recommendation is in hand.

"The board of inquiry also recommended that a study be initiated to identify a suitable air recognition system for future use. The Defence Research Agency is undertaking a research programme aimed at assessing short-term solutions as well as options for the longer term. We are exchanging information on possible solutions, and maintaining close contact with the US and other allies.

"We are also working closely with our allies to develop new procedures and training to ensure that, in any future operations, the risks of troops firing on their comrades is minimised".

I add that that has always been the case.

"These events were a tragic incident in the Gulf war. We must try to learn what lessons we can from them. We must at the same time continue to pay tribute to the remarkable achievements of British, American and other coalition forces in the successful liberation of Kuwait, and salute the memory of all those who gave their lives, whatever the circumstances".

4.52 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Viscount for repeating the Answer made to a Private Notice Question in another place and will, I am sure, join with the noble Viscount in expressing our deepest regret for those killed by friendly fire and for the pain and suffering caused to the families involved.

The noble Viscount has been good enough to explain what action the Government propose, but I have one or two questions that I hope the Minister will be able to answer. As regards the attitude of Her Majesty's Government and the Ministry of Defence, are the Government satisfied that the whole matter was properly and openly handled by the Ministry of Defence from the outset and, indeed, by the United States Government from the outset? Was there total honesty? There have been allegations that there were cover-ups and lies told. I should be grateful if the noble Viscount will respond to that.

Secondly, I understand from the Minister that there will be new procedures on how to avoid such an incident occurring in the future, if it is possible. But have the Government any explanation as to why the two A-10 pilots apparently failed to follow the procedures which were carefully followed by other A-10 pilots in the same area on the same day? If so, what is the explanation? The procedures seem to have worked well for some but not in this tragic case.

Thirdly, in view of yesterday's court decision of unlawful killing, which the noble Viscount mentioned, will he advise the House of the action which Her Majesty's Government propose to take? I understand that the matter is in the hands of the DPP who has asked for papers, which is perfectly proper. However, will the Minister give an indication of the legal advice which the Government have received as to whether proceedings could conceivably be possible against the A-I0 pilots involved and, if that is possible, under what jurisdiction and how?

Furthermore, do the Government believe that any such action is desirable? If such actions are not possible or desirable, will the noble Viscount advise the House of the action which the Government will take to ensure that the United States Government take due account of yesterday's court decision? After all, that is a decision which is possibly the half-way stage of a serious trauma experienced by the families of the soldiers who were killed. It demands urgent steps to bring that trauma to an end. Any steps the Government take will have the support of the Opposition.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I too join with the noble Lord, Lord Williams, in thanking the noble Viscount for repeating the Statement. I express on behalf of my noble friends our recognition of the great pain caused to the families of those soldiers who lost their lives in those tragic circumstances.

Is the Minister aware that we welcome unreservedly the steps taken by the Ministry of Defence on air recognition systems and other similar areas to avoid repetition of episodes of this kind on any occasion in the future when we may be collaborating with non-British forces?

Is the Minister aware that many of us recognise that, in the light of the statement by the Director of Public Prosecutions, there is no jurisdiction as regards the British courts? Many of us believe that the continued clamour for some form of action to be taken against the American pilots in the criminal courts is profoundly mistaken and will cause only deeper pain to the families concerned when they recognise that that is quite impossible.

Is the noble Viscount aware that American servicemen too lost their lives as a result of friendly fire, as did many other American and British servicemen in the Second World War? Finally, is he aware that, recognising as we do the great grief of the families concerned, unhappily it is a great mistake to believe that terrible mistakes do not happen in war and that there is some solution available which will minimise the pain to the next of kin?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to both noble Lords who have spoken for their parties. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked about the attitude of Her Majesty's Government and the attitude of the Americans. I emphasise that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence from the very beginning, and once again last week during the course of his visit to Washington, made it absolutely clear that we expect the Americans to show the maximum amount of sympathy and sensitivity to the families concerned.

As regards our own attitude, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked what action Her Majesty's Government wish to take in particular as regards proceedings which may be possible against the A-10 pilots. I repeat that the DPP has advised and has given out a press release to the effect that we have no jurisdiction in the circumstances which obtained during the course of this tragic incident. I emphasise to the noble Lord some of the implications. First, the Ministry of Defence is considering the implications of the jury findings and verdict. I believe it would be inappropriate for me to offer any further comment until that consideration is complete.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has asked to see all the relevant papers held by both the coroner and the Ministry; and I understand that all the papers will shortly be in the hands of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The noble Lord asked about the new procedures. The new procedures which we are developing are being developed closely with our allies and with the United States in particular. We want those new ideas for doctrine and for training to ensure that in any future operations the risk of troops firing on their comrades is minimised. I add also that that has been a continuing process. It is not something which is new as a result of a friendly fire incident in the Gulf war. Ever since allied operations began, and particularly when war became such a high technology affair, the armed forces of this country have paid particular attention to the technologies available in order to minimise the effects of friendly fire. That process continues with undiminished vigour.

With regard to the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, I associate myself with the tenor of his remarks. It should perhaps be remembered that during the course of the Gulf war on average around 3,000 sorties per day were flown by allied air forces. The number of friendly fire or "blue on blue" incidents, as I understand is the jargon used in this country, was much smaller in the Gulf war than in previous wars. I suggest that that is a reflection of the considerable care and the advances that have taken place over the years to ensure that the risks are minimised.

I associate myself also with the tribute paid by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, to the American servicemen. They lost a number of their own men in casualties of a similar kind. I am sure that the whole House would like to be associated with the expressions of sympathy sent by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, to our American comrades-in-arms in these tragic circumstances.

5 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether any disciplinary or similar action has been taken by the American authorities in respect of the two pilots who appear to have failed completely to carry out their standard instructions? Further, can my noble friend assure the House that it is the intention of our Government, as it is of the American Government, not to allow this tragic incident to interfere with or spoil the close and friendly relations between the armed forces of the two countries which co-operated so splendidly in the Gulf war?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. The matter of disciplinary action is a matter for the American armed forces and their procedures. I am sure that my noble friend will agree that we would not like the Americans to interfere with our procedures in matters of discipline concerning our own armed forces. He will readily understand what is at stake in circumstances of that kind. With regard to the second part of his remarks, I am delighted to give him the assurance he seeks and am grateful to him for making that point.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, following on from that reply, does the Minister agree that the remarks made on a television programme by one of the solicitors in the case accusing the two American pilots of cowardice and dishonourable conduct, were unfortunate and unwarranted? Will the Minister dissociate Her Majesty's Government from those sentiments?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, we are all well aware of the extraordinary record of courage of the American pilots in wars of all kinds. I know, as he does, that the courage of the American pilots in the Gulf war was second to none.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, can the Minister say why it was left to the parents of the soldiers to initiate proceedings? Would the Government have taken any action? The Americans landed in the wrong place when entering Israel at one time and have therefore shown that they are not accurate. Surely it is wrong that it is left to the parents and ordinary citizens to take up these cases.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, with respect to the noble Baroness, she is being more than a little unfair on a number of points. First, during the recent Gulf conflict I was astonished by the extraordinary accuracy of the high technology weapons employed, above all, by the American forces.

I am sorry, but I cannot remember the second part of the noble Baroness's question. Perhaps she will assist me.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, I am a simple soul and find it odd that ordinary citizens have to take up these matters.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, ordinary procedures were followed; the inquest was held; the verdict was reached. The Ministry of Defence made representations to the Americans of the kind I have described to your Lordships. We all feel sympathy for the parents—no one more than I—but I must make it clear that ordinary procedures were followed. There is no doubt that even if the parents had not been fighting in the way that they have, legally we would be in a similar position as we are today.