This week's main security and defence news has been the continued controversy surrounding legal claims against British personnel. The Daily Telegraph reports that British forces are facing criminal investigation over the killings of 52 Afghans during Britain’s military campaign in the country, as ministers fears lawyers are to bring a new wave of cases against troops. Hundreds face questioning over a total of 166 cases of alleged killing and mistreatment, which have mostly been bought by two British law firms. Ministers and commanders are concerned the Afghan campaign could now produce a similar barrage of claims to those seen after the Iraq War, where more than 1,500 allegations of abuse and murder have been lodged.
With regards to Iraq, The Independent reports that the Prime Minister and Defence Secretary have been accused of making “ill-judged” attacks on Iraq war crimes investigators. In a letter to David Cameron, signed by seven human rights organisations, he is warned that his dismissal of claims against British forces is “damaging to the important ongoing work of the Iraq Historical Allegations Team (IHAT)”. In recent weeks, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, has condemned “ambulance chasing” lawyers, while Mr Cameron claimed that there is “an industry trying to profit from spurious claims lodged against our brave servicemen and women who fought in Iraq”.
In a related development, The Sun reports that reports that the Defence Select Committee has launched an inquiry into the Iraq war crimes investigation after branding it 'shambolic'. Public Interest Lawyers boss Phil Shiner and the head of the IHAT team, Mark Warwick, are among those set to be questioned, according to the newspaper.
· Questions on the MDP answered in the House of Commons
· Deepcut inquest will not consider 'culture of sexual abuse' claims
Claim that MDP 'overstretched'
The Independent reports that the MDP is so overstretched that current staffing levels are “not sustainable” without risking security, according to an official report. The Force is reliant on officers working “excessive overtime” to maintain security, it warned. Despite a recruitment drive which began three years ago, the Force’s headcount only increased by five officers in 2014/15 due to retirements and other departures. As a result, “huge amounts” of overtime were required to maintain security levels, said the report by the MoD Police Committee, which oversees the Force.
The report added that there could be “no absolute assurance” that incidents such as the one at the Atomic Weapons Establishment nuclear facility in Berkshire – where in 2013 seven people resigned amid allegations of officers sleeping on duty and failing to complete routine patrols – would not happen again. David Riddle, the chair of the MoD Police Committee, said the Force’s results in 2014/15 had been “acceptable”, but added: “This level of performance effect is only achieved with huge amounts of overtime working… this is not sustainable without risks to employees and security.”
The report contains a number of claims that are open to misinterpretation, and also ignores the lack of resources that is at the root of many of the issues it raises. We are currently engaged with the journalist who authored the story, other members of the media and our parliamentary supporters in order to clarify both the potentially misleading content of the report, and to ascertain why the MoD has chosen now to publish it, as opposed to when it was completed in July 2015.
Questions on the MDP answered in the House of Commons
This week has seen a set of Parliamentary Questions concerning the MDP tabled by SNP defence spokesperson Brendan O'Hara MP and answered in the House of Commons by Mark Lancaster, the Defence Minister with responsibility for the MDP.
The rules governing overtime were a major focus of Mr O'Hara's inquiries. In response to Mr O'Hara's first question, asking as to whether overtime for MDP officers stationed at HM Naval Base Clyde is (a) voluntary or (b) compulsory, Mr Lancaster said that MDP officers can be asked to work beyond their normal conditioned hours if there is an unavoidable operational need to do so.
Mr O'Hara's second question inquired as to whether MDP officers are subject to disciplinary or unsatisfactory performance procedures in the event that they are unable to undertake additional work in excess of contractual hours; and what plans he has to review that policy. In response, Mr Lancaster said that line with the rest of the police service, MDP officers may be subject to disciplinary action if they fail to attend for duty when directed to do so, and that there are no plans to review this policy.
Mr O'Hara's third question asked whether there is a shortfall in the number of MDP; and what provision there is for tasking such officers beyond their contracted hours of work. In response, the Minister confirmed that there was a shortfall, and said that it was covered by both voluntary and compulsory overtime. In a related inquiry, Mr O'Hara asked how the MoD defined the phrase “exigency of duty”. Mr Lancaster said that MDP policy stated that: “Exigencies of Duty should be interpreted as relating to situations where there is an unavoidable operational need, which necessitates a change of rostered duties”.
Further inquiries focused on the issue of MDP officer numbers. Mr O'Hara's fifth question inquired as to what steps the MoD is taking to address the shortfall in personnel numbers within the MDP. In response, Mr Lancaster said that the MDP commenced a recruitment programme to bring new officers into the Force in late 2013, and is currently planning to recruit around 200 new officers during financial year 2016-17.
The SNP Member's final questions inquired as to the number of extra MDP officers required to fully staff the MDP between 2016 and 2020; and the projected number of officers the MDP planned to employ between 2016 and 2020. In both of his responses, the Minister referred to pre-SDSR figures showing force numbers remaining flat over this period.
The pre-SDSR figures projected personnel provided by the Minister are outdated, and are currently subject to an internal review. These question were tabled on behalf of the DPF as part of our ongoing Parliamentary engagement and awareness raising that has so far seen a large number of meetings with senior MPs in the House of Commons, including members of the Defence Select Committee.
Additional senior military appointments announced
The Times reports that a Royal Marine is expected to be given the number two job in the Armed Forces as part of a reorganisation of the top echelons that will also establish new heads for the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. Lieutenant-General Gordon Messenger, a decorated Afghan veteran, is the surprise choice for Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff after David Cameron derailed the MoD’s succession plans by overruling its recommendation for the Chief of the Defence Staff role.
Air Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, a highly respected pilot, is expected to become the Chief of the Air Staff, and Vice-Admiral Sir Philip Jones is set to be the next First Sea Lord. The appointments come after the Prime Minister last week selected Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, the Vice-Chief, as the next head of the military rather than General Sir Richard Barrons, who had been preferred by the MoD’s senior appointments committee.
Deepcut inquest will not consider 'culture of sexual abuse' claims
The Guardian reports that an inquest into the death from a gunshot wound of a young female soldier at Deepcut Barracks 20 years ago will not consider whether there was a “culture of sexual abuse” at the Army barracks, a coroner has ruled. Opening a fresh inquest into the death of Pte Cheryl James, 18, discovered with a single gunshot wound to her head at the Surrey barracks in 1995, coroner Brian Barker QC said: “This is not a public inquiry into the culture at Deepcut in the mid-1990s.” The inquest will, however, examine whether a third party was involved in any policy shortcomings regarding lone guard duty, sexual behaviour, supervision and support of new recruits – particularly females – and surrounding drugs and alcohol.
At a pre-inquest hearing last month it emerged there was new evidence that suggested she may have been sexually coerced or exploited by senior ranks shortly before her death. At least 10 witnesses are said to have come forward with allegations of a culture of sexual exploitation at Deepcut, according to the human rights organisation Liberty, which is representing the family.
MoD spends £50m on press and PR officers
The Daily Mirror reports that the total cost of MoD press and PR came to £50m last year. The MoD in Whitehall has 49 press and public relations staff and spent £5.8m on PR and press in 2014-15, according to figures uncovered by Labour MPs. Twelve of the workers, including nine civilians and three from the military, earn £50,000 or more. The Armed Forces – the RAF, Royal Navy, Army and Joint Forces Command – have 122 press officers, including 21 military posts where workers are on £50,000 or more. The annual bill comes to £41.4m, including £30m for marketing and advertising campaigns. Defence Minister Mark Lancaster said the “vast majority” of the annual expenditure was on “advertising and marketing in direct support of Armed Forces recruitment campaigns”.