Examination of Witness

Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 6th October 2020.

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Major Bob Campbell gave evidence.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale 11:00 am, 6th October 2020

Our next witness is Major Bob Campbell, who is giving evidence remotely using sound only. We have until 11.25 am for this session. Major Campbell, could you just confirm to me that you can hear me, and could you speak so that we know you can hear us?

Major Campbell:

I can hear you fine. I will just say that I have hearing loss in both ears, so may I ask for the questions to be spoken clearly? You do not need to shout, but just speak clearly, and then we will probably get through this more quickly.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

Excellent. You are pre-empting my good self in giving that instruction to those asking for evidence. Major, could you just confirm your name formally for the record?

Major Campbell:

My name is Robert Campbell, former Army officer.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

Thank you very much, sir. I have four Members who have indicated that they want to ask questions: Stephen Morgan, Kevan Jones, Carol Monaghan and Stuart Anderson. If anybody else wants to ask a question, please indicate. I will go first to Stephen Morgan, who I am sure will follow the Major’s instructions.

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Shadow Minister (Defence) (Armed Forces and Defence Procurement), Shadow Minister (Defence)

Major Campbell, thank you for giving evidence before the Committee today. You have obviously recently been in the news for the eight investigations. How did the MOD provide you with support? Was there good care and assistance during the investigationsQ ?

Major Campbell:

No, there was none. Depending on which investigation you wish to address, in the early investigations under the Royal Military Police we were told just not to think about it and to get on with stuff. No concession was given to us in our day-to-day duties. Later on, when the Aitken report was written in 2008, we were not approached prior to the publishing of the report; I heard about it on the radio like everybody else, while I was driving home. It is rather unpleasant to discover on the radio that your own Army accuses you of killing somebody in Iraq, three years after you have already been cleared of that allegation.

Moving forward to the later investigations, there was a civil claim made by Leigh Day in 2010, in which we were ordered to give another statement and we were ordered not to seek our own legal advice by the Treasury Solicitors. We ignored that instruction: we got our own legal advice, and we declined to assist the Ministry of Defence in defending the civil claim, because frankly we thought they had rather a cheek after previously accusing us of committing that offence.

When IHAT came in 2015, I had just started my intermediate officer education at staff college. I knew IHAT was going to come and arrest me and question me, so I approached the course colonel to ask whether I could defer the course, because I had to concentrate on this allegation. He wrote to me in an email, “Based on the version of events you have described to me, which would doubtless be corroborated by your colleagues, I do not believe you have anything to fear. Given the utter discrediting of Iraqi witnesses in al-Sweady, I believe you can take further confidence. I know this is extremely unsettling business for you, but I would urge you to try to put it to one side and focus on this course. That in itself will be a distraction and help you get on with your life.” So, to briefly answer your question, no, we were not offered any type of meaningful support other than some rather unhelpful advice to try not to think about it.

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Shadow Minister (Defence) (Armed Forces and Defence Procurement), Shadow Minister (Defence)

Q How was the chain of command? Did they take responsibility? Should they have done?

Major Campbell:

No. Again, that last instance was my direct line manager—okay, it was slightly different from the normal chain of command because I was on a course. Their belief was—this is what kept being told to me—if you have done nothing wrong, you have got nothing to fear. While I tried to explain to them, “Look, I have been through many investigations and, trust me, they are very, very unpleasant” they would not have it.

I pushed it up the chain of command to Army headquarters, and again they were not really interested in helping. They expressed to me that they were being told by the directorate of judicial engagement policy not to get involved. In terms of hindering me, if you like, I was appalled to discover that the Army personnel centre had handed over my service and medical records to IHAT without my knowledge or consent.

Apart from the military chain of command, I wrote to Penny Mordaunt, Mike Penning, Mark Lancaster and the Secretary of State, Michael Fallon, in response to some of their public statements in order to correct some things they said that were not entirely accurate when they were making claims that everybody was fully supported. They all responded back to me, “You don’t understand—we have to do this because we have to be seen to be doing something.” The impression I got was that me and my two other soldiers being multiply investigated was necessary for the reputation of the United Kingdom or the Army.

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Shadow Minister (Defence) (Armed Forces and Defence Procurement), Shadow Minister (Defence)

Q We heard from other witnesses about the challenges that veterans have faced in getting information and suggestions of improvements to the armed forces covenant or a phone line or advocates. Will you say a bit more about what support you would have wanted?

Major Campbell:

The Army is a large and compartmentalised place. For example, when public statements are being made about these investigations, nobody actually checks with us or our solicitors if they are indeed true. Certainly, Brigadier Aitken did not think to check with us or our solicitors if we might wish to dispute anything that he was going to write in his report. He wrote retrospectively that our case was included in another load of cases, some of which were true and some of which, I believe, were false. However, I think a greater degree of a direct communication would have been better.

I also suggested in my letter to Michael Fallon that an officer at least of colonel rank should be set up somewhere like Army headquarters—I will focus on the Army because I am not too sure about the other two services—to be the one-stop shop for anybody who is under investigation. I was told that that was not necessary. Both Michael Fallon and Sir Stuart Peach in the Defence Sub-Committee on this matter said there is no need for such a thing because there is the chain of command, which will do everything. The chain of command folded at the first hurdle. The administrative process in place to apply for our legal fees to be reimbursed failed at the first hurdle, because the form did not have a box for an IHAT investigation.

On top of that, there was just to be no concession on how we were supposed to conduct ourselves in our day-to-day life. Because there was no single point of contact, we had nowhere to address our concerns. I had a very tedious series of correspondence, again with all those people I just named, who all responded, “If you’ve got a problem with it, complain to IHAT.” That is not the most helpful piece of advice.

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Shadow Minister (Defence) (Armed Forces and Defence Procurement), Shadow Minister (Defence)

Q You will have seen criticisms that the Bill does not do enough to protect our troops. What would you do to improve the Bill in its current form?

Major Campbell:

In terms of legal protections of soldiers, I would not change anything in terms of historic allegations, let me make that point clear. Had the Bill been in place during my case, it would have meant, at the absolute worst, that our torment would have ended in 2009, and neither IHAT nor the Director Service Prosecutions would have had any method of dragging it out further. For me and my two soldiers, SO71 and SO72 as they are cited in the IFI report, that would have meant that we could have at least enjoyed the last 11 years in peace.

Secondly, if the Bill had been in place during my time, Leigh Day would not have been able to bring about false allegations. That would never have got off the ground. I am no legal expert, but if the Bill was in place, it would make the vexatious, scattergun, “throw a thousand allegations at the wall” process unprofitable, and people like Leigh Day and Phil Shiner would have to find some other human misery to exploit.

The last point about this hard stop of five years is that it would be a useful device, because it would focus the minds of the MOD and the investigators. It was the MOD that dragged it out for the last 17 years. If they had this hard stop, they would have to really focus and decide whether they are going to prosecute or not. Putting them under a bit of pressure would have saved us a lot of angst in the years past.

Photo of Stuart Anderson Stuart Anderson Conservative, Wolverhampton South West

Q Thank you, Major Campbell. It is an absolute disgrace that you have had to go through everything that you have. It is horrible to hear, but we need to learn lessons from this and look to move forward. You just mentioned that if the Bill had been in place since 2009, you, SO71 and SO72 would have been able to lead a normal life, and the torment would have been over. Will you confirm whether you welcome the Bill or whether you are against it?

Major Campbell:

I fully welcome the Bill, both in its intent and in its content. Again, in my amateur legal opinion, there may be a legitimate argument to be had over whether the Attorney General is the correct address in terms of being the final arbiter of further prosecutions, due to the advice he gives to the armed forces on the legality of a conflict.

My other slight concern is that previous Attorneys General have done us no favours at all. Lord Goldsmith had a lot on his shoulders for how we ended up in Iraq and the manner in which we conducted operations there. When I appealed to Jeremy Wright, and when he gave evidence to the Defence Sub-Committee on this several years ago, he took the view that this was an entirely fair process and that there was absolutely no reason to stop IHAT or even to scrutinise it any further than necessary.

The last point I would make about the Bill is that I cannot really adhere to some of the arguments against it. When I wrote to all these people, such as the CGS, the Adjutant General and previous Ministers Mordaunt, Penning, Lancaster and Fallon, they would all express a variation of, “Well, we have to be seen to be doing something.” I do not believe that public relations and being seen to be doing something are a good enough reason to destroy a soldier’s life or to drive them to suicide. I do not think that is morally acceptable in any way, but apparently they thought that was a price worth paying.

To answer your question, yes, I support the Bill. There may be some minor tweaks here and there, but, in principle, and in the absence of anybody doing anything to help us in any way, it has my full support.

Photo of Stuart Anderson Stuart Anderson Conservative, Wolverhampton South West

Q Just a follow-up. We had the Second Reading of the Bill in Parliament a few weeks ago. I am not sure whether you saw that; it was a very interesting debate. There were a lot of recommendations, and one of the recommendations to the Bill Committee is to shelve the Bill and start again. In my new term as a politician, that means to stop it. What is your view, and what do you believe the veterans community and armed forces will feel if the Bill does not pass the Bill Committee?

Major Campbell:

From my very unscientific survey of veterans, I think that generally—in my orbit—the Bill is welcomed. If the words of the Bill are not welcomed, the principle of attempting to improve the lot of veterans and service personnel is welcomed. There is deep anger and distrust between the veteran community and the MOD. It is all very well for the MOD to blame Phil Shiner and Leigh Day for this, but it was the MOD that carried out the repeated investigations.

To answer your question, I think that if the Bill were to be squashed, it would send a very depressing message to the veterans community—probably one that has been felt quite harshly by the Northern Ireland veterans—that we are not important enough to get any type of assistance when facing legal assault.

Photo of Stuart Anderson Stuart Anderson Conservative, Wolverhampton South West

Thank you for your comments, and thank you again for your service.

Photo of Sarah Atherton Sarah Atherton Conservative, Wrexham

Q Hello, Major. I would like to thank you for your services, and I am horrified at what you have been through. Some critics say the Bill will increase the number of prosecutions and allegations taken to the international criminal courts. Given your experiences and knowledge of the Bill, what is your opinion on that?

Major Campbell:

I think that is a false allegation, and I will tell you why. Again, when I wrote to all these people—even internally within the Army—I was told repeatedly that if IHAT was interfered with in any way, the International Criminal Court would swoop in and clamp us in leg irons, and we would all be off to The Hague. Michael Fallon repeated in the Defence Sub-Committee that he had no power to stop such investigations and that, if he were to do so, the ICC would get involved.

I decided to test that theory, and I wrote to the chief prosecutor of the ICC, Ms Bensouda, asking in exasperation whether I, SO71 and SO72 could surrender ourselves to the ICC rather than go through several more appalling years at the hands of the Ministry of Defence. Ms Bensouda responded that our allegation does not fall within her remit, because her job is not to prosecute individual soldiers; her job is to prosecute commanders and policy makers for the most grave crimes. In her orbit, manslaughter, which is what I was accused of, is not a war crime. It is a domestic crime—a regular crime, as opposed to what she would normally deal with. I reported that rejection to the Ministry of Defence, which continued to repeat that the ICC would fall in.

The second point I would make is, what would be so terrible about the ICC being involved? We kept getting told that the ICC has a bit of scrutiny over IHAT and is keeping a very close eye on it. Personally, I do not have a problem with that. Like I said, the ICC was not going to ruin our careers, the ICC was not going to harass our families, and the ICC was not going to go and bully soldiers who had left the Army for a witness statement—not even a suspect’s. The ICC would conduct itself professionally, and it would have no incentive—no financial incentive—to drag things out for years, like Red Snapper, which provided most of the detectives to IHAT, did. Finally, the ICC would probably not use the investigative technique that IHAT used, which was to pay Phil Shiner’s gofer to be the go-between between them and witnesses because IHAT was too scared to go to Iraq.

So regarding the whole spectre of the ICC, first, I do not find it remotely as scary as people make it out to be and, secondly, it is completely false, because I attempted, with my two soldiers, to surrender ourselves in order to spare us another several years of the MOD fannying about, and the offer was refused. So to answer your question, I do not see that as an issue at all.

What I would say, though, is that I think I understand why the Government would be reluctant for the ICC to be involved, because the scrutiny would not be on Tommy Atkins; the scrutiny would be on General Atkins and Minister Atkins. Those are my thoughts on the ICC.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

Q Major Campbell, thank you so much for the evidence that you have given us already today. I think that all of us here are sorry to hear of your experience, and I think that the sympathy of all of us is with you.

Clearly, a lot of this is still very raw for you, and you have talked about the MOD dragging it out over the last 17 years. Can you tell me how you think this Bill will actually tackle the MOD’s actions and inactions, which you have been subjected to over the last 17 years?

Major Campbell:

Like I said in the previous response, if there was a time limit within which these things can be actioned, then I feel that a higher level of scrutiny and decision making would be necessary to make them work. I also think that the kind of dithering manner in which this process has been carried out to date would be nullified. If there is a time limit within which they have to get on with it, get it done right the first time and get the correct legal advice, I think that would improve matters no end.

Major Campbell:

That is a good question, because I do not know. The reason I say that is that I do not believe that there is a police force in the United Kingdom that would be able to carry out such a contested, political and adversarial investigation. If you think about the way that it has been done in the past, when IHAT got this group of ex-detectives who were used to domestic crime, and they are asked to investigate an allegation in a country they have never been to, in a culture they do not understand, in a combat environment they have never experienced and in a language they do not speak, I just think that you are already on a hiding to nothing if those are your parameters.

I do not know how a war crimes investigation can be done effectively while hostilities are ongoing. For example, if there was an allegation against our forces in Syria, I really do not understand how you are supposed to be able to gather good evidence in an area that may be occupied by the regime, Russia or ISIS, and I do not understand how you would achieve the right level of evidence. But what I do know is that the way they did it in the past was an absolute shambles.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

Q Given that it would be difficult—I know that we are very short of time, Chair—to gather evidence when there is still an ongoing conflict, is five years a realistic point?

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

This needs to be a very short answer, Major Campbell.

Major Campbell:

I would argue yes, because otherwise, if you make it longer, you are just handing another incentive to the Leigh Days and Phil Shiners of this world to drag it out, because they have got absolutely nothing to lose. All of their funds are provided by the taxpayer, and all of the funds of the claimants are provided by the taxpayer. They can take a punt, and it is a win-win for them.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

We do have a time limit, which I am afraid we have reached, Major Campbell. But again, on behalf of all the members of this Committee, I thank you for your evidence this morning. Thank you very much indeed.

Major Campbell:

Thank you.

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.