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UK’s Defence Committee refused access to UK Special Forces in heated debate with Defence Minister

In a British Parliamentary Deference Select Committee on the 2nd November, 2022, the UK Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, has been challenged for his failure to permit members of the Defence Select Committee access to UK Special Forces.

In a heated exchanged, the Committee chair, Tobias Ellwood MP said that the UK Special Forces were not the best in the world ‘about scrutiny’, and that the Special Forces – including units such as the Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Services (SBS) – were “not above scrutiny.”

When asked if the Ministry of Defence could facilitate a visit to Hereford, home of the SAS, the Deference Minister said “no” and went on to argue that “this committee does not have oversight of Special Forces and its operations.”

The chair of the Defence Committee disagreed, saying: “I’m sorry, we have oversight of the Armed Forces in the UK Defence.”

Mr Wallace then said the Special Forces were very busy in operational work.

The exchange led Labour MP Derek Twigg to suggest that the MOD was using the busyness of the UK’s Special Forces “as an excuse to stop as visiting”.

Importantly, Labour’s Kevan Jones MP then stated precedent, saying that the Defence Committee had before been given access to UK Special Forces operations. He stated “we have visited Special Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. In one case in Iraq, we actually flew out of Baghdad, this committee on SAS transport.”

Earlier this year, Action on Armed Violence raised concerns about a lack of parliamentary oversight of the UK’s Special Forces following emerging evidence of multiple SAS killings of detainees and unarmed men in suspicious circumstances in Afghanistan, with the subsequent investigation into extrajudicial killings characterised by basic failures.

Following that investigation, The Mirror newspaper reported on AOAV’s please for ministers to be able to monitor Britain’s elite special forces.


The video of the exchange can be seen here.

The transcript is here:

Tobias Ellwood MP: We’ve been, we’ve been asking to go and visit Hereford for some time. Now Hereford does an important aspect. We’re very proud of what we do, arguably the best in the world. But they’re not about scrutiny. They’re not above accountability. And that’s what this Committee absolutely provides. So, we thank you for your letter. But I ask you to facilitate a visit, a precedent has already been set – members of this committee have visited in the past – so please, can we…

Ben Wallace MP:  The answer is no, Mr. Chairman. This committee does not have oversight of Special Torces and its operations. And you know, that is well as I do.

Tobias Ellwood MP: I’m sorry, we have oversight of the Armed Forces in the UK Defence – you saying now, sir, that we are not allowed to visit Hereford?

Ben Wallace MP:  I’ve said I’ve entertained your request. And I’ve said that they are incredibly busy on operational work. And I think at this moment, it is not appropriate for the committee to visit… You know, oversight of Special Forces is carried out by the Ministers of the Crown, as they have always done under all governments.

Tobias Ellwood MP:  That’s right. But there’s also a precedent for this Committee to visit Hereford and indeed, to visit the SBS in Poole as well. Now, I put it back to you, the fact that in due course, you should facilitate that visit. Your letter back to us made it very, very clear that you had no interest in allowing us to visit. And we’ve been asking prior to Ukraine to actually go. So, I do ask you to reconsider.

Derek Twigg MP: To put it bluntly minister… it does appear to us given its well over a year since we asked for a visit, that it seems to be that it’s just now being used as an excuse to stop as visiting. For some reason, the MOD or somebody in MOD does not want us to visit Hereford.

Ben Wallace MP:  My memory serves me when I was an opposition. I can’t remember the Labour government allowing the Defence. Maybe it did…

Tobias Ellwood MP:  We made it very clear precedent to be set we wrote to you prior to the Ukrainian invasion, and still we didn’t get a reply back before at all. So please.

Kevan Jones MP: We have visited Special Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. In one case in Iraq, we actually flew out of Baghdad, this committee on SAS transport.

Tobias Ellwood MP:  Right. The point has we been made for the Secretary of State to reconsider.