HC Deb 19 May 1992 vol 208 cc147-52 3.30 pm
Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence to make a statement on the verdict of the coroner's inquest into the deaths by friendly fire in the Gulf war.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in extending its deepest sympathy to the families 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 United States A10 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 findings and verdict. The Director of Public Prosecutions has asked to see all the relevant paper held by the coroner and the Ministry of Defence and will consider all the circumstances of the case. The MOD is providing all 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 10 July of last year that General Johnston of the United States 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 23 July as soon as it was possible to provide an authoritative account based on the findings of our board of inquiry.

On the question of procedures in future military operations, our 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 that 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 United States 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.

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.

Mr. O'Neill

In thanking the Secretary of State, can I pay tribute to the persistence of purpose of the families of the service men who were so tragically killed on 26 February? Had it not been for their endeavours, yesterday's decision might not have been handed down. The verdict would seem to contradict the official report of the board of inquiry which stated: The Board did not establish whether the US Air Force personnel involved were at fault. Does the Secretary of State recall that, in reply to an Adjournment debate on Fusilier Lee Thompson on 6 December 1991, his Minister of State said: It is of overriding importance, particularly in the case of injury or death, to establish the facts as quickly as possible. It is essential, therefore, that witnesses appearing before boards of inquiry should give their evidence in a full and frank manner."—[Official Report, 6 December 1991; Vol. 200, c. 590.] What does the Secretary of State propose to do to guarantee that our American allies provide that evidence in the full and frank manner that his Minister of State demanded on 6 December?

Finally, what steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that the families of British service personnel are never again subjected to the unnecessary exacerbation of their grief in the way that they have been subjected to it during the last few months?

Mr. Rifkind

On the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question, our desire is to ensure that any sensitive response to the families of service personnel who are killed or injured in any conflict should be provided as fully and as quickly as possible. Of course there are occasions during a conflict when it takes time, particularly if other allies are involved in the conflict, for the full information to be known, but that is our intention and we intend to see that we achieve it.

On the earlier part of the hon. Gentleman's question, the Ministry of Defence and the United Kingdom authorities have co-operated fully with the inquest with regard to the provision of any information or witnesses required by either the coroner or the inquest. It must be for the United States Government to come to a conclusion on what their response should be with regard to their own personnel.

Dr. Charles Goodson-Wickes (Wimbledon)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the description of fire as "friendly" rests very uneasily with the verdict of unlawful killing? Will he confirm that one of the remarkable achievements of the coalition efforts in the Gulf war was the achievement of the military ends with the minimum of casualties? Was not a major factor the flying of up to 2,500 sorties a day? Although the whole House has the utmost sympathy for those British soldiers who died in the course of duty and, of course, for their bereaved families, and although I would not expect my right hon. and learned Friend to comment adversely on the coroner's verdict, in all the circumstances, would not a better verdict have been one of accidental death?

Mr. Rifkind

I first pay tribute to the personal contribution that my hon. Friend made when he volunteered for active service in the Gulf. That is something which I know has been widely acknowledged.

He was right to remind the House and the wider public of the enormous pressure under which all the allied pilots were operating at that time. Some 110,000 sorties were flown by allied pilots during the Gulf conflict. As my hon. Friend mentioned, that worked out at approximately 2,500 sorties a day. That is a factor which ought to be borne in mind.

Not only American pilots but pilots of all the coalition countries were acting under enormous pressure, and were exposed to the enormous risks of injury or death. Those who expose themselves to enormous danger in such circumstances ought to have that taken into account when tragic incidents—accidents, acknowledged by all as having been accidents—occasionally, regretfully, occur.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

Two of the soldiers came from my constituency and one from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Miss Lynne). Is the Minister aware that we both know that the parents did feel that they were given misinformation and that they were struggling against secrecy? Will the Secretary of State also note that the jury's verdict was returned after the coroner had most clearly and specifically told it that a verdict of unlawful killing should be returned only if it thought that the action was not simply careless but reckless? While I accept all that has been said about the heat of battle and the pressures to which pilots are subjected, surely it would be right for our Government to ask the Americans now to have a full and open inquiry into the affair.

Mr. Rifkind

In the first instance, the implications of the jury's verdict are something for the legal authorities to consider. In answer to the earlier part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I certainly acknowledge that, in the first period after the Gulf war, there was some confusion and uncertainty as to precisely what had occurred on that day. The fullest information was available to the Ministry of Defence only at a later stage—in July, as I said earlier. As soon as we had acquired that information, we took steps to ensure that the families were informed. I accept, however, that it is desirable to try to find a more effective procedure for making information available at an earlier date and, if initial information turns out to be incorrect, special efforts must be made to correct it as soon as possible.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, despite the tragic and ghastly accident that led to the deaths of these fine young men, all British forces who served in the Gulf have reason to be grateful in particular to the pilots of A 10s, whose outstanding work in destroying Iraqi tanks contributed to our casualties from enemy action being minimal?

Mr. Rifkind

I agree with my hon. Friend. It was one of the remarkable features of the Gulf war that so few coalition forces sustained injury or death, and it is a tribute to the professionalism and expertise of British, American and other coalition pilots and other forces that that proved possible.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Is it not possible to drop this absurb military euphemism, "friendly fire"? All fire that kills or injures is hostile, even if it comes from an allied weapon. What discussions have taken place between Ministry of Defence officials—representatives of the British Government—and the pilots concerned?

Mr. Rilkind

As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, our contacts have been with the United States Government, and it was as a result of those contacts that the United States Government sent the United Kingdom authorities full statements and affidavits from the pilots concerned, which were made available to the inquest.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

In view of the coverage in some of today's media, will my right hon. and learned Friend make it absolutely clear that there can be no question of bringing the American airmen to trial in Britain, not only because there is a world of difference between the accidental and mistaken killing of someone in the heat of battle and the deliberate or even reckless killing of the innocent in peacetime but because the only countries with jurisdiction to bring them to trial are the United States, which has granted them anonymity, and Iraq, where they would receive no justice?

Mr. Rifkind

I have heard what my hon. and learned Friend has said. He will be the first to appreciate that, in the first instance, these must be matters for the Director of Public Prosecutions. The DPP has already pointed out the lack of jurisdiction that exists and has emphasised the point to which my hon. and learned Friend has drawn attention.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Does the Secretary of State agree with me, as a Member representing one of the families that were bereaved as a result of this tragic incident, that we all accept that no litigation and no monetary compensation can bring back the young men or compensate in any way for the loss of their future? Does he also accept, however, that the families have gone through 15 months of tears, turmoil and trauma to reach even this stage?

If I recall rightly, at Question Time the Prime Minister said that he was not in a position to release any more information. Does that mean that there is further information to be made available? When the Secretary of State refers to the information that became available on 10 July, is he referring to this documentation sent to all the families, substantial sections of which were blanked out and which was not very helpful to the families concerned? The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that prosecutions could be forthcoming only in England and Wales. Was that deliberately to avoid the possibility of litigation in a Scottish context? Will the Secretary of State now agree to meet all the families concerned—preferably with the Prime Minister—as those families know how and when their youngsters were killed, but not yet why?

Mr. Rifkind

The reference to jurisdiction in England and Wales is a consequence of the fact that the inquest took place in England. However, I am not aware of any difference with regard to matters of jurisdiction even if similar events took place north of the border. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces has of course already met a number of the families. I fully appreciate the difficult and tense period that this has been for the families in question. We are all anxious to ensure that, if any new information that might become available was relevant to explaining the circumstances in which their relatives lost their lives, that information should be made available to them. However, that will have to be judged in the light of any information that might arise. We are considering the evidence that was submitted to the inquest to see whether it gives rise to the need for any further examination, and we will respond if it turns out that that is justified.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Bearing in mind that some of the service men killed were Scots, my right hon. and learned Friend will recognise the feeling that exists in Scotland about the matter. However, we also hope that he will take a balanced view and recognise that there are no easy areas in the desert to identify one's position; that it is difficult in the desert in a fast-moving war when movement is rapid, and that the pilots operated under enormous stress. The operation of so many sorties a day in battle conditions are the circumstances in which mistakes can and will occur. It is nonsense for anyone to pretend afterwards that humans do not make errors, because they do. That is particularly true in the stress of battle conditions. Will my right hon. and learned Friend also bear it in mind that the A 10s were responsible for the massive destruction of Iraqi armour which would have caused irreparable damage to our troops if it had made contact with them?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is correct. Obviously the success of the coalition in achieving not just air superiority but air supremacy had a very material impact on our ability to win the Gulf war and on the minimising of casualties when that war entered its final phase.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does the Secretary of State accept that, from the very time that the bereaved families learned that their beloved sons had died, they were concerned about the lack of sensitivity and information and the belief that there was a cover-up and that the truth was not being told? Should such tragedies ever occur in future, I hope that we will have learnt that lesson.

Would it not be useful if the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State told the American authorities that, although the House fully supported the war and the overwhelming majority of British people fully supported a justified war against criminal aggression, it would be unfortunate if the alliance built up at that time was marred as a result of a lack of American co-operation in telling the truth about what actually occurred? I hope that our American allies will be told that.

Mr. Rifkind

I do not believe that the alliance is being marred, or that there has been a failure to tell the truth. It is important to stress those points. Of course, it may prove impossible to understand exactly the detailed circumstances that led to the tragic deaths of those soldiers. What happens in the midst of such conflicts can sometimes be very difficult to establish with precise detail at a later stage. However, we have no reason to believe that there has been any intent to withhold legitimate information or to do anything unreasonable. It is important that that point should be emphasised.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, while our hearts go out to the families of the young soldiers, the hounding of the two American airmen and, by extension, the American air force, ought to stop? They risked their lives to save the lives of tens of thousands of ground troops, including many thousands of British lives that were potentially at risk.

In welcoming the various remarks of my right hon. and learned Friend about reconsidering standard operating procedures, may I ask whether he accepts that there is no way of avoiding accidents completely? Indeed, 15 Royal Marines were killed at Suez—a much smaller operation —as a result of an accident involving a British aircraft; and 110 British soldiers were killed by a Czech pilot on Salisbury plain during the second world war in a single accident. No one suggested that those people should be tried for manslaughter.

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, my hon. Friend is entirely correct in reminding the House that in almost every example of war or conflict there have been tragic incidents of that kind. He is right also to emphasise the invaluable contribution that was made by American pilots and by pilots of all the countries of the coalition to ensuring an extraordinarily successful outcome to the Gulf war.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does it not show hypocrisy and double standards that, not so long ago, the Bush Administration were demanding that the two Libyans go to America and stand trial, and yet when the British people—[Interruption.] I thought that that would provoke some comments from the Tories. Whereas on the other hand, when the British people and the parents are demanding the same treatment for those Americans, this tawdry Government act like Bush's poodle.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman is descending to a new level of repugnance in seeking to draw any comparison between an act of terrorism which led to the loss of lives of hundreds of people on a civil airliner and a tragic incident by courageous pilots in the middle of the Gulf war.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. We will now move on. That matter has had a very good airing.