Oral statement to Parliament

Statement on the report into the death of Mr Baha Mousa in Iraq in 2003

Statement by Dr Liam Fox, Secretary of State for Defence.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Liam Fox

Madam Deputy Speaker, with permission 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, make sure what reparations we can make are made, and do all we can to prevent it 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.

Mr Speaker, 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, focussed 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”, and this was the primary cause of his death.

This inquiry was rightly set up in 2008 by the previous government with the intent to shine 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 MOD and the Army have previously made a full apology to the family of Baha Mousa and to his fellow detainees and has 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 myself asked and that others in this House will ask too.

Among these are:

  • who was responsible and what happened 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?

First, on responsibility the report makes clear the extent of the failings of individuals, the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces at the time and in earlier years.

In addition to the shocking displays of brutality for which individuals are responsible, it is also clear that there were serious failings in command and discipline in the 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 and 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 notes that there was inadequate doctrine on prisoner handling.

There was a ‘systemic failure’ that allowed knowledge of the prohibition on abusive techniques made by the Heath government to be lost over the years.

The report 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 becoming involved in counter-insurgency activities.

Madam Deputy Speaker, since this incident in 2003, six different Defence Secretaries have stood at this Despatch Box and I am sure all will 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 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.

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 here in the House of Commons on specific individuals and the role they played 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 action is underway through the chain of command as we speak.

The investigations of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (or IHAT), which started work in November last year, 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 this.

Mr Speaker, since 2003 action 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.

And I can 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.

I am confident that our approach to detention there is now markedly improved from the period rightly criticised in this report.

But we are in no way complacent about the issues identified by Sir William.

I can inform this House that I am accepting in principle all of 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.

The recommendation that we institute a blanket ban during tactical questioning on the use of certain verbal and non-physical techniques I am afraid I cannot accept.

However, I share some of Sir William’s concerns and I have asked the Chief of Defence Staff to ensure that this approach is only be used by defined people in defined circumstances.

Madam Deputy Speaker, let me conclude by saying this: In Iraq, between 2003 to 2008, 179 British personnel were killed serving their country and many more returned injured.

In autumn 2003, the 1st Battalion Queen’s Lancashire Regiment faced an immensely difficult challenge as they 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, and I quote, “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 this 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.

We must not allow the unspeakable actions of a very few to damage the reputation of the whole.

So let me be clear, Baha Mousa was not a casualty of war.

His death occurred as a detainee in British custody, it was avoidable and preventable and there can be no excuses.

There is no place in our armed forces for the mistreatment of detainees and there is no place for a perverted sense of loyalty that turns a blind eye to wrongdoing or erects a wall of silence to cover it up.

If any serviceman or woman, no matter the colour of uniform they wear, is found to have betrayed the values this country stands for and the standards we hold dear, they will be held to account.

Ultimately, whatever the circumstances, the rules or regulations people know the difference between right or wrong.

We will not allow the behaviour of individuals who cross that line to taint the reputation of the armed forces of which the British people are rightly proud.

I commend this statement to the House.

Updates to this page

Published 8 September 2011