By Paul Goodman
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Here is the Defence Secretary's statement, and below are questions from Conservative MPs with his answers. It's worth noting that Fox went out of his way to disagree with former serviceman Kris Hopkins – who features in Gazette this morning – that the incident was a dark day for the army as a whole, rather than for the individuals responsible. Ministers usually strive to avoid disagreeing with colleagues on the floor of the Commons, and Fox is an extremely skilful performer in the Chamber. That he felt he had to make the distinction reflects its importance to him (and I think he was right).
"The Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Liam Fox): With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the report into the death of Mr Baha Mousa in Iraq in 2003. In any conflict, no matter what the reason for our country’s involvement and no matter how difficult the circumstances, what separates us from our adversaries are the values with which we prosecute it and the ethics that guide our actions. To represent Britain, in war as well as in peace, is to represent our inherent democratic values, the rule of law and respect for life. When those values are transgressed, it is vital that we get to the bottom of what has happened, are open about the issues and their causes, ensure that what reparations we can make are made and do all that we can to prevent it from happening again. Only in that way can we ensure that those values hold firm in how we think of ourselves and in how others perceive us.
I am today laying before the House the independent report published this morning by Sir William Gage as chairman of the public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr Baha Mousa in Iraq in 2003. I am grateful to Sir William and his team, who have produced a report that is sober, focused and detailed. Above all, I believe it to be both fair and balanced. It is, however, a painful and difficult read. As the report sets out:
“Baha Mousa was subject to violent and cowardly abuse and assaults by British Servicemen whose job it was to guard him and treat him humanely”.
That was the primary cause of his death. The inquiry was rightly set up in 2008 by the previous Government with the intent of shining a spotlight on the events surrounding the death of Baha Mousa and to provide the most definitive account possible in the circumstances. It does that comprehensively. What happened to Baha Mousa and his fellow detainees in September 2003 was deplorable, shocking and shameful. The Ministry of Defence and the Army have previously made a full apology to the family of Baha Mousa and to his fellow detainees and have paid compensation to them.
We can take some limited comfort that incidents like this are extremely rare, but we cannot be satisfied by that. Given the seriousness of this case, there is a series of questions that I have asked myself and that other Members will ask too. Among these are: who was responsible and what happened to them as a consequence? What action has been taken to prevent a recurrence? Do we have the right protection in place today in Afghanistan? And, of course, how will the Government respond to the recommendations made in the report? On responsibility, the report makes clear the extent of the failings of individuals, the MOD and the armed forces at the time and in earlier years. In addition to the shocking displays of brutality for which individuals were responsible, it is also clear that there were serious failings in command and discipline in 1st Battalion the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment. There was a lack of clarity in the allocation of responsibility for the prisoner-handling process, and sadly, too, there was a lack of moral courage to report abuse. However, it must be acknowledged that a small number behaved with both integrity and courage in reporting what they had witnessed. They are examples of how others should have behaved.
Wider than the battalion, there were also deficiencies in policies, orders and training relating to detention at that time. The chairman noted that there was inadequate doctrine on prisoner handling and a “systemic failure” that allowed knowledge of the prohibition on abusive techniques put in place by the Heath Government to be lost over the years. The report also confirms that the Army was underprepared for the task of handling civilian detainees, having expected after the end of war-fighting to provide humanitarian aid rather than become involved in counter-insurgency activities.
Since this incident in 2003, six different Defence Secretaries have stood at this Dispatch Box. I am sure that they all regret that it has taken so long to get to the bottom of what happened and that even now the refusal of some involved to tell the whole truth means that it has not been possible to establish the full extent of the culpability of individuals. Their behaviour is a matter for their own consciences, but others must take responsibility for the wider failures and deficiencies, and this report does not mean that our investigations of mistreatment of detainees are over. The evidence from the inquiry will now be reviewed to see whether more can be done to bring those responsible to justice. It would therefore not be appropriate to comment in the House on specific individuals and their role in this appalling episode.
I have asked the Chief of the General Staff, where individuals are still serving, to consider what action is necessary to ensure that the Army’s ethical standards are upheld. That is occurring through the chain of command as we speak. The investigations of the Iraq historic allegations team, which started work last November, are now well under way and are revealing evidence of some concern. It is too early to comment on what the conclusions of the IHAT investigations might be, but cases will be referred to the Director of Service Prosecutions, if and when there is sufficient evidence to justify that.
Since 2003, action taken by the MOD and the Army to address failings as they were identified has touched every aspect of the prisoner-handling system, from policy and doctrine to ground-level directives, as well as training and oversight. The changes wrought have been fundamental. The Army Inspector’s report in 2010, validated by an independent expert adviser, is one example of the detailed scrutiny applied to the training and doctrine for handling detainees. I assure the House that there is a commitment to continuous improvement at all levels inside and outside the armed forces.
As the report acknowledges, further positive changes have been made as a result of matters that emerged from evidence heard during this inquiry’s final module—module 4—which was a thorough scrutiny of our current detention policies, practices and training. The Minister for the Armed Forces and I take a close personal interest in detention matters in Afghanistan, and I am confident that our approach to detention there has improved markedly since the period rightly criticised in this report. However, we are in no way complacent about the issues identified by Sir William, and I can inform the House that I am accepting in principle all his recommendations with one reservation. It is vital that we retain the techniques necessary to secure swiftly, in appropriate circumstances, the intelligence that can save lives. I am afraid that I cannot accept the recommendation that we institute a blanket ban, during tactical questioning, on the use of certain verbal and non-physical techniques.
I share some of Sir William’s concerns, however, so I have asked the Chief of the Defence Staff to ensure that that approach is used only by defined people in defined circumstances.
Between 2003 and 2008, 179 British personnel were killed in Iraq serving their country, and many more returned injured. In autumn 2003, 1st Battalion the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment faced an immensely difficult challenge as it attempted to bring law and order to a large area that had been subject to a brutally oppressive regime for many years. As Sir William acknowledges, the issues addressed in his report
“need to be understood in the operational context in which they occurred: the tempo of operations; the poor state of the local civilian infrastructure; a daily threat to life from both civilian unrest and an increasing insurgency; the deaths of fellow service personnel and incessant oppressive heat. In combination these factors made huge demands on soldiers serving in Iraq in 2003.”
There are few of us sitting in the comfort of the House of Commons who can claim to understand what that must have been like. However, the vast majority of armed forces personnel faced these same challenges and did not behave in the way outlined in this report. They represent the fine ethical values found day in and day out in our armed forces, and we must not allow the unspeakable actions of a very few to damage the reputation of the whole.
Kris Hopkins (Keighley) (Con): This is a dark day for the British Army. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that the criminals who were responsible for this should be brought before the courts so that we can secure the good name of Her Majesty’s forces, which are made up of good, honourable people—men and women—who have been let down by a few thugs and the cowardliness of those who have baulked justice?
Dr Fox: If I may, I will disagree with my hon. Friend, as I do not believe that this is a dark day for the Army; it is a dark day for a small number of individuals who have damaged the Army’s reputation for high ethical conduct. The vast majority of the British Army behaves in a way in which the whole House could be utterly proud. My hon. Friend is right, however, that those involved need to be pursued, that justice needs to be done and that we need to see what evidence comes from the report. Where new evidence is brought to light, we need to try to break through this wall of silence—this misguided sense of loyalty—that prevents wrongdoing from being properly addressed.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Both Front Benchers and Back Benchers who have spoken so far have all quite rightly concentrated on the ethical dimension of this terrible case, but is the Secretary of State satisfied that the significance of abuses of this sort to counter-insurgency campaigning and the way in which they play into the hands of our enemies is sufficiently stressed by the heads of the armed services to the people on the front line?
Dr Fox: I am, and it is an essential part of counter-insurgency—and successful counter-insurgency—that we are seen to protect the population concerned. The improvements made to training, to facilities, to detainee handling and, indeed, to the current training of the Afghan forces on how to do the same will ensure that, although we can never remove the risk of such incidents happening, we can certainly minimise that risk.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): To follow up what my hon. and good Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has said, I would like to take it to a lower level: when people are frightened, scared out of their wits, very tired and have lost friends, they sometimes lose their moral compass. Is my right hon. Friend instructing battalion commanders and brigade commanders to ensure that when such situations are likely, officers brief their men on exactly how they should act? In circumstances that we have heard about, as they apply to the Baha Mousa case, will my right hon. Friend ensure that supervision by officers and non-commissioned officers is as close as it possibly can be in order to stop weak people, who might also be thugs, from acting appallingly?
Dr Fox: In many professions, the whole point of professional training is to get individuals to behave under stressful circumstances in the same way as they would at any other time. That applies in the medical profession, and it applies to the Army. My hon. Friend is right to point to the duty of officers both to supervise and guide those they lead. One of the most appalling failures set out in the Baha Mousa inquiry was the failure of those in command generally to supervise and guide those for whom they were responsible. My hon. Friend makes a very important point.
“We sleep peaceably in our beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf.” Does the Secretary of State agree that the armed forces are unique because, along with certain elements of the police, they are armed and authorised to use lethal force on behalf of the state? Does he also agree that it is for that reason that we must never allow the principles of integrity and moral courage to be eroded, regardless of the circumstances in which our soldiers find themselves, and that we must never allow our rightful admiration for our armed forces to lead us to turn a blind eye to abuses such as this?
Dr Fox: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. He is quite right. It is worth remembering that liberty is not the natural state of affairs; it has to be fought for in every place and by every generation, and that sometimes requires us to take on forces of fanaticism that require rough or violent ways of engaging with them. Our armed forces are indeed licensed to use lethal force in the protection of the state, but they also have to operate within the law, both domestic and international. They have to conform to the highest ethical standards, not only because they represent this country but because it is by operating according to those ethical standards that their use of lethal force gains the acceptance of the British public.
Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Although there can be no excuse for the horrors inflicted on Mr Mousa, will my right hon. Friend reiterate that the enemies of this country must not be allowed to portray the brutal actions of a few as an indictment of the 120,000 servicemen and women who gave heroic and exemplary service in Iraq, not least the two Tamworth soldiers, Private Leon Spicer and Private Phillip Hewett, who gave their lives in Iraq, and for Iraq, in 2005?
Dr Fox: I agree; it is indeed testimony to the quality and ethical behaviour of our armed forces that we are examining the behaviour of only a very small number of the 120,000 who served. However, as my hon. Friend says, there are no excuses, and the behaviour of a small number can taint the reputation of the many. That is why there can be no hiding place for this kind of behaviour.
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I welcome the statement and the report, but will the Secretary of State tell us why this has taken so long to achieve, given that the incident took place more than a decade ago?
Dr Fox: The incident took place some eight years ago. In setting out this morning why the report took such a long time to produce—some three years—Sir William explained the complexities involved and the fact that the team had wanted to go into very great detail to ensure that as much information as possible was put into the public domain, that the full history of the detainee operations was set out, and that the context could be fully understood. He also said in his statement this morning that it would be for others to judge whether the time had been well spent. The report is very long and detailed, but it is actually very readable, and any Member who takes the time to look at it will come to the conclusion that Sir William’s time was extremely well spent.
Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for putting forward his case so clearly. Will he tell me what the difference is between tactical questioning and interrogation? Also, how can we ensure that this kind of thuggish activity does not become a recruiting sergeant for those who oppose the operations that we are undertaking or endanger the lives of armed forces personnel?
Dr Fox: I believe that such activity has been reduced to the lowest possible level by the measures that have been taken. The way in which we conduct operations in Afghanistan is very different from what occurred in Iraq, and that has been one of the major reasons for the success of the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan. My hon. Friend asked about the difference between tactical questioning and interrogation. Tactical questioning is defined as
“the obtaining of information of a tactical nature from captured persons…the value of which could deteriorate or be lost altogether if the questioning was delayed”.
“the systematic, longer-term questioning of a selected individual by a trained and qualified interrogator”.
David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): I hope that my right hon. Friend would agree that, no matter what shame has been brought on our armed forces as a result of this incident, it is in no way representative of the history and record of that fine regiment.
Dr Fox: In no way does the incident reflect upon the very proud history of the regiment, but those who were involved need to ask themselves whether their behaviour contributed to its proud history. That includes those who were involved in violent behaviour and those who showed a lack of leadership. They are the ones who need to ask themselves questions, not those in the broader regiment.