HL Deb 04 May 2004 vol 660 cc1026-36


Lord Bach

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Minister for the Armed Forces in another place earlier this afternoon. The Statement is as follows:

"I am grateful for this opportunity to speak to the House following the serious allegations that have been made in recent days about the conduct of some British soldiers in Iraq.

"Any decent thinking person will have been disturbed by photographs published in the Daily Mirror on Saturday which appear to show the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by British soldiers.

"From the outset, we have taken the allegations seriously and taken the photographs at face value and will continue to do so unless there is evidence to the contrary. The Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police was immediately informed, and an investigation was launched.

"The Royal Military Police Special Investigation Branch teams are currently following up lines of inquiry in Iraq, in the UK and in Cyprus, where the 1st Battalion, the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, is currently based. Investigating officers are in touch with the Daily Mirror, to see what further information it has that might help get to the bottom of the incident. To date, the Daily Mirror has handed over a total of some 20 photographs.

"It would be wrong for me to speculate about the outcome of this investigation, which must be allowed to take its course. As right honourable and honourable Members will be aware, it is not appropriate for Ministers to intervene with police investigations. I can assure the House, however, that if British soldiers are found to have acted unlawfully, then appropriate action will be taken. But our immediate priority is to establish the truth as quickly as possible. That is why I would urge individuals with relevant information to come forward. We are determined to leave no stone unturned.

"The House will know that a number of other allegations have been made concerning the treatment of Iraqi prisoners and Iraqi civilians, some of which have resulted in fatalities. These are also serious matters which, where necessary, are being thoroughly investigated. There have been suggestions that such investigations are not being pursued properly or are unduly slow. This is unfair to investigating personnel. Many of these investigations require detailed work to be undertaken in difficult and often dangerous circumstances. They cannot and should not be rushed. I am confident that they are being carried out properly. It is my intention to release as much further detail on all of these incidents as possible, bearing in mind the rights of all those involved. It would be quite wrong to prejudice this process by applying undue pressure for haste or, indeed, to point the finger of guilt outside the due process of law.

"TheDaily Mirror article will have caused some people to question the integrity of British soldiers and the validity of their mission in Iraq. Thousands of service personnel have served in Iraq over the past 14 months. They have done an exceptional job in testing circumstances, and in turn have secured the support of the majority of Iraqis. I hope that right honourable and honourable Members will join me in paying tribute to the superb work that our Armed Forces are doing both in Iraq and elsewhere around the world. While treating these allegations with full seriousness, we should not allow them to colour our judgment of the quality or integrity of our troops, or of the Army as a whole.

"Very grave allegations have been made. They challenge the reputation of the British Army here, in Iraq and elsewhere. We must ascertain the truth or otherwise. At best such allegations undermine the excellent work that our Armed Forces are doing under the most difficult conditions today in Iraq. They undermine the progress that we have made with our coalition partners in moving Iraq forward from the tyranny that the Iraqi people suffered under Saddam Hussein. Our forces serve with distinction throughout the world, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, the Balkans, Northern Ireland or elsewhere. Their achievements and professionalism are rightly praised worldwide. That is why we must establish the truth or otherwise of these allegations".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.


Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. The allegations in the Daily Mirror are extremely serious. This is a public relations catastrophe. The damage caused by the photographs continues to do untold damage to the coalition's image and will put the lives of British soldiers serving in Iraq at even greater risk.

These allegations must, of course, be thoroughly and very swiftly investigated, but they are the more shocking because of the outstanding reputation of the British Armed Forces not only for their remarkable war fighting capabilities but also for their abiding humanity and decency in peacekeeping operations. I have no hesitation in joining Her Majesty's Government in paying tribute to the superb work that our Armed Forces are doing in Iraq and elsewhere.

A very great deal is expected of our soldiers. They are required, sometimes, to deploy on operations that are extremely dangerous, to obey orders which may put their lives at risk, and to live and work for long periods under the most challenging conditions.

This House, the country and the media need to understand that military service is like no other in the demands that it places on individuals. Soldiers exist to engage in war, and war places unique demands on them. They overcome these challenges only if morale, discipline and training are of the highest order. From every soldier is demanded exceptional levels of commitment, self-sacrifice and mutual trust. We therefore support the most vigorous and detailed investigations to restore the good name of the British Army.

I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify the following. What representation has his department received from Bertrand Ramcharan, the acting United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, regarding the alleged abuses of Iraqi prisoners by British forces in Iraq? Has his department's investigation been able to confirm the authenticity of the photographs published by the Daily Mirror? Military analysts have expressed reservations. They do look very contrived, as does the timing of these allegations straight after reports of American ill-treatment of prisoners. Indeed, there is speculation that these images may be a dangerous hoax.

When were the specific incidents alleged to have taken place? How many alleged incidents of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British soldiers were reported to senior officers at that time? Finally, is the Minister satisfied with the training given to our troops for the handling of detainees prior to deployment and when they are in theatre?

The allegations centre around the Queen's Lancashire Regiment. This regiment is over 300 years old and carries more battle honours on its regimental colours than any other infantry regiment of the line. In the recent campaign in Iraq its commanding officer was awarded the DSO. The RSM was awarded the Military Cross and the regiment received several distinctions. If wrong has been done, then clearly it must immediately be dealt with. But let this House and the wider country keep in perspective 300 years of the most loyal and distinguished service to the Crown and the nation.


Lord Redesdale

My Lords, I, too, wish to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. It is important that the veracity of the photographs is ascertained. However, the damage has already been done in publishing the photographs. They have been flashed round the world and the smear on the British Army's reputation—a reputation so hard won—has already occurred in the minds of many. In that respect the photographs have lost some of the hearts and minds that have been won over.

Although I speak only in my own right, I question the veracity of the photographs. The American photographs were taken as trophy photographs. The American soldiers were not scared to show their faces. Those photographs were taken to show those American soldiers committing horrendous acts. However, the soldiers in the photographs that we are discussing, despite the question marks regarding their uniforms, were photographed in such a pose that their identity was hidden, which is slightly strange. Many trophy photographs are taken by soldiers in the field, for example, in Basra, although obviously not in such a situation as the one that we are discussing. However, that is a question that has to be answered.

I refer to the pristine state of the uniforms in the photographs. Having served in such uniform, I know that it is incredibly difficult to keep it in such a pristine state. Anyone who had been involved in the activity in which it was alleged the British soldiers in the photographs had been involved could not have kept the uniform in such a pressed state.

The work of British soldiers abroad is of the highest standard. However, the MoD stated recently that the European Convention on Human Rights does not apply to soldiers in Iraq. Can that really be the case, and should it be the case, especially after the questions being asked about other outstanding cases, which I shall not raise today but which are obviously being processed under the due process of law? As the UK has signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, is it not the case, as many courts believe, that the agents of the state are bound by the rules of the convention wherever they act for the state?

However these photographs are to be viewed, they have made the work of British soldiers in southern Iraq even more dangerous than it was previously. Noble Lords on these Benches support that work which is necessary. We hope very much that the consequences of the publication of these photographs will not be the loss of British life.


Lord Bach

My Lords, I am very grateful to both noble Lords for their support. There is very little with which I could disagree in what they said, and the House would feel the same way. I told noble Lords that I was briefly in Iraq last week and in Basra last Wednesday. Like everyone else who has been there, including many Members of this House and the other place, I was immensely and immediately impressed by the conduct of the British troops whom I came across. They have an incredibly difficult task and, from what I saw, perform it with skill, humour and understanding, and are indeed a credit to this country.

I shall come to the questions in a moment, but I shall make a point that both noble Lords made without stating it obviously. The matter is serious either way. If the allegation made in the Daily Mirror is proved, it speaks for itself how serious that is for the reputation that the British Armed Forces enjoy—rightly, in my view. Of course I shall not comment on whether the photographs are authentic, but if it turns out that they are not, that is pretty serious for all kinds of reasons, not least that it will potentially have put British lives at risk.

I am not aware of any representations made from the relevant United Nations official, but I shall check that out for the noble Lord and let him know. I stress that the authenticity is absolutely a matter for the Special Investigations Branch, which along with others is looking into the issue at present.

I reassure the noble Lord and the House that all in the Armed Forces are given thorough mandatory training courses, which include specific guidance on handling prisoners of war. All personnel must attend refresher training every year. The House will not be surprised to hear that, before going to Iraq, all personnel are briefed on the rules of engagement and on procedures for dealing with prisoners of war and other detainees. It may not be so widely known that each combat unit is required to have eight senior noncommissioned officers trained in handling prisoners of war. Units responsible for the routine handling of detainees conduct further specialist training.

I was delighted by what the noble Lord, Lord Astor, said about the Queen's Lancashire Regiment. Indeed, it has a very proud history, as was well said in this House and earlier this afternoon in another place.

I hear with interest the view of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on authenticity. He will forgive me if I do not comment on it; he would not expect me to. The Ministry of Defence has given some attention to human rights legislation. It is our belief that. strictly speaking in law, it does not apply in Iraq. Whether it does or not may one day be tested. The important point to make is that the Armed Forces are fully aware of their obligations under international law, and training in the Geneva Convention is given to soldiers. The suggestion made in some quarters that our troops are not subject to the rule of law is not true; CPA order 17 sets out the jurisdiction that applies to the personnel of the multinational force and others. UK personnel are subject to UK law, as they would be in the United Kingdom.

Even at this early stage, this episode tells us how important it is for there to be caution and good, sensible comment on all sides, rather than for anyone to rush to judgment.

5.35 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, would the Minister agree that the editor of the Daily Mirror must be either the stupidest or the most avaricious man alive to have published the photographs in question, whether they be real or fake? Will he tell me whether the soldiers who are alleged to have taken the photographs were paid? Bearing in mind the damage that the editor may have inflicted on allied captives in future, will the Minister tell me whether the law permits him to be charged with an offence?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I understand the strong feelings expressed in those questions, but I am afraid that I am not able to make any comment on them from the Dispatch Box. We very much hope that the Daily Mirror will give the investigators the fullest co-operation. Indeed, the leader in that newspaper last Saturday stated that, for the sake of the British Army's reputation and the integrity of every decent member of our forces, those who carried out this and other savage acts must be court-martialled". Those are sentiments that we can all understand. However, the newspaper claims to know the identity of one of the attackers and says that he and a colleague provided the photographs. That information has been the basis for the allegations on which the noble Baroness commented.

Nevertheless, the Mirror appears intent on protecting the identities of its informants because the soldiers fear reprisals by the Army. That is not a concept that I understand very clearly in this context, or at all. I have every confidence, as I suspect that the House will, that anyone who has relevant information will be treated fairly and lawfully, and that his or her rights will be fully respected. We hope that the Mirror will reconsider its position on that matter and assist the investigating authorities in getting to the bottom of the allegations as quickly as possible.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, those of us who served in Her Majesty's Armed Forces, have had contact with them over the years and know the very high standards inculcated—standards that we have experienced ourselves—find the allegations extremely difficult to believe. Nevertheless, we live in a very wicked world and, as my friend, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester, reminded me, war brutalises. I very much welcome the Government's Statement that our immediate priority is to establish the truth as quickly as possible.

If, as I very much hope, the allegations are discovered to be unfounded, will Her Majesty's Government think seriously about what can be done to rehabilitate the reputation of the regiment concerned? If, very sadly, they are discovered to be well founded, will there be wider lessons to learn from them? It will not be enough simply to court-martial a few soldiers. Something fundamental will have gone wrong with the whole system of checking and training, and that will need to be looked into.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for what he said; no one could disagree with his comments. However, he will understand that I am not really in a position to answer his questions. If the allegations are proved, that will be a serious matter that of course goes beyond the regiment in question.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, as one who has been very critical from the beginning of our decision to go to war in Iraq, I nevertheless endorse very warmly the tributes paid to the performance of our troops. I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, is right in saying that, whether the photographs are proved to be fakes or genuine, the damage has been done—very serious damage in the Middle East. I was originally going to ask precisely the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington. The House should be told whether the Daily Mirror paid for the photographs.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, who has vast experience in the Middle East. I was in Jordan before going to Iraq last week and learnt a lot. I dare say that if I had been there after the photographs had been shown, I would have learnt a lot more. The question of whether the Daily Mirror paid money to whoever provided it with the photographs is of equal fascination to me, but I am not in a position to be able to answer it.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, has it been drawn to my noble friend's attention that the wording used on the front page of this morning's Daily Mirror and the wording used in several BBC programmes over the weekend made it clear that in the eyes of the people responsible for those programmes the charges have already been proved? It is not a scandal that language of that sort should be used and will my noble friend make representations to the chairman of the BBC and the editor of the Daily Mirror to that effect? Will he tell us what response he receives?

Lord Bach

My Lords, it was for precisely that reason that I said at the end of my reply to my fellow Front Benchers opposite that we all need to approach this matter with considerable caution and care—and perhaps that includes particularly the press and the media. Of course I have seen the Daily Mirror headline today. I have not had the pleasure of listening to what the BBC has said about the matter today, although I listened to it over the weekend. What I can say to my noble friend is that I will take back his request and see what can be done.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, can the Minister clarify matters regarding prisoners of war? In the articles in the Daily Mirror it was alleged that the individuals who had been ill-treated had been arrested on ordinary criminal charges and that they were not handed over to the Iraqi police because they knew that they would immediately be released. Can the noble Lord say what instructions have been given to the forces about people who have been arrested since the cessation of hostilities, who, presumably, he would not classify as prisoners of war?

Does the Minister not think that, irrespective of the outcome of the investigations that are now being conducted, there should be some independent authority to which Iraqi civilians could complain when there are allegations of ill-treatment by coalition forces? Will the Minister reply to the suggestion that I made on 20 April, before this matter blew up, that we should consult our allies on the possibility of inviting an independent authority, appointed under Article 90 of Protocol 1 of the Geneva Conventions, to go to Iraq and conduct an independent international investigation of any allegations that have been made against either the British or the American coalition forces?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am not sure that I did use the expression "prisoners of war".

Lord Avebury

The noble Lord did, my Lords.

Lord Bach

My Lords, if I did then I accept what the noble Lord is saying—that we are not talking just about prisoners of war but about Iraqi citizens who are in the custody of the coalition forces. I understand that. Regarding all of the questions and points raised by the noble Lord as to how we might progress, I shall take them back with me and give him an answer. All of those matters are now of distinct relevance.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, strictly speaking these are not prisoners of war because they can be referred to as such only if there has been a formal declaration of war between states. In such cases there is a protecting power, a neutral power who has access to the prisoners and where they are detained. That cannot be so in this case. All that can happen is, as was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that there should be appointed—and appointed soon—an independent power that will have the same access as a protecting power under the Geneva Conventions. That is the only way that one can cope with a situation where there are armed hostilities between those seeking to occupy and pursue peacekeeping duties and the others seeking to oppose them by arms. There must be some diplomatic effort soon to establish an independent person, body, state or arbitrator.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am advised that we are entitled to arrest and hold people who are, in our view, a serious security threat. Internees are told of their right to have their status reviewed. An independent military body reviews the status of internees after 28 days. UK forces in turn inform the ICRC, which informs families, and a list of internees is held by the local police. As I have said, there is considerable training of the Armed Forces regarding their obligations under international law, not least the Geneva Conventions.

Lord Thomas of Swynnerton

My Lords, during the Second World War the Daily Mirror published a cartoon drawn by the caricaturist "Zec" showing a sailor dying on an oil ship. The Prime Minister, Churchill, summoned the general manager and the editor of the Daily Mirror, Mr Cecil Thomas, who happened to be my uncle, and told them that if that sort of thing occurred again the Daily Mirror would be closed down. Can the Minister say whether, even with the present uncertain, illegal or undefined war, any consideration has been given to the possibility of some kind of censorship?

Lord Bach

My Lords, my understanding is that the answer to that question is "no". That is certainly true of the prospect of closing down the Daily Mirror or any similar newspaper. That would be a brave, indeed foolish, course for any Government even to consider. I have to say that however difficult we may find this— which we all do; and I find it difficult to stand here and understand why the articles appeared when they did—we have to recognise that what we and our troops in Iraq and elsewhere in the world stand for is a press that says things that we do not always like.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, can we he assured that International Committee of the Red Cross personnel have total and unrestricted access at all times to all prisoners at the Basra detention centre? Can we impress upon our American coalition allies that they should allow precisely the same level of access to the ICRC at the Abu Graib prison in Baghdad?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the UK currently holds about 80 security internees in southern Iraq. Of course we have no interest in holding anyone unless they pose a serious threat to security. The noble Lord will know that the right to hold such people derives from the 4th Geneva Convention and, as I have tried to say this afternoon, we take our responsibilities very seriously under that convention. I am happy to be able to tell the noble Lord that the International Committee of the Red Cross has full and unrestricted access at the detention facilities.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, is that at all times and to all prisoners?

Lord Bach

My Lords, "full and unrestricted access" is the phrase that I have here. Whenever the ICRC asks for it, it has that access. Those are the words that I use. I would remind all noble Lords that the reason why we have to hold people at all is because our forces are so often in danger of lethal, deadly attacks. It is right and proper that we arrest those who pose such a threat. It is equally right that we allow the full access that we do.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

My Lords, returning to the question asked by my noble friend Lady Trumpington, I wish to ask the Minister three questions which I think that he can answer without prejudicing the outcome of this inquiry. First, in view of the obvious sensitivity of the photographs, what information, if any, was given by the Daily Mirror to the Government of its intention to publish the photographs beforehand? Secondly, what attempts have been made by the Government to obtain from the Daily Mirror the evidence on which it bases its claim of the accuracy of the photographs? Thirdly, what has been the Daily Mirror's reply?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I can certainly attempt to answer all three of the questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle. First, as I understand it, the Daily Mirror informed the Ministry of Defence of the existence of the photographs before they were published, but not very long before. The noble Lord will recall they were published in Saturday morning's edition of the newspaper. I understand that it was some time on Friday afternoon, the day before, that we were first informed. If I am wrong about that, then of course I will let him and the House know in the usual way.

Secondly, as to the investigation taking place, I think I have already said that the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police, is "in touch"—the expression I used—with the Daily Mirror, and I have already expressed our hope that the newspaper will give the fullest co-operation. As to the third question, I am afraid that it is too early to be able to tell the House whether it has given the fullest cooperation.

Lord Judd

My Lords, would my noble friend accept that many of us were deeply impressed by his words when he said that the outcome of this issue either way would be a grave and serious matter? Does he agree that ultimately stability, peace and the future of Iraq depend upon the battle for hearts and minds, and that therefore, in any security operations, only the highest exemplary standards are acceptable? Does he further agree that the message that should go out from this House today is: first, that we have nothing but unqualified respect and admiration for all those in the armed services who are determined at all times that the highest standards will be maintained; and, secondly, that anything of the kind alleged ever happening within the British services simply will not be tolerated?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I can agree with what my noble friend says. The "highest exemplary standards", to use his expression, is exactly what we expect and look for from our British Armed Forces, and that is what we receive. Of course, it would be a sad blow if these allegations were proved to be correct.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, in endorsing the warm tributes that have been paid to the general conduct of British forces in Basra and in Iraq in recent times, is not the least of their achievements that they seem to have opened up the opportunity for freedom of the press in Iraq, something quite unknown under Saddam Hussein? Each one of the editors of those media organisations that are now able to communicate in Iraq will learn that with such freedom comes responsibility as well. In this exceptionally dangerous and volatile situation, that responsibility clearly rests also with the editor of the Daily Mirror, to ensure that whatever information can help to reach the truth of this matter is made available, not just after prolonged legal proceedings or prolonged applications by the Government but immediately to those responsible for this investigation. The fact of these revelations has undoubtedly made the life of other British troops in that region and elsewhere more dangerous, and the editor of the Daily Mirror now has a duty to give every co-operation to that investigation.

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with huge experience on these matters. I agree with every word he said.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that atrocity in war is as old as war itself? We have no reason for believing that sin is more original in this century than in others, though the means of publicising it are more ready to hand. Does he also agree that one of the things that distinguishes the great armies from the good ones is expedition and authority in dealing with this sort of thing, and that therefore, should these charges turn out to be proved, reprimands would be insufficient? Does the Minister further agree that when General Sir Michael Jackson said that anyone found guilty of such action is unfit to wear the Queen's uniform he was looking in the right direction?

Lord Bach

My Lords, again I agree exactly with what the noble Earl has said. The British Armed Forces have the respect of the world, and if these matters are proved they will be dealt with extremely seriously.