Because of time factors, if the Member who secured the debate takes 10 minutes, all the seven Back Benchers, including Mr Stewart, who have indicated that they want to speak will have four minutes before I bring in the Scottish National party and Labour party spokespersons for five minutes each, and the Minister will have 10 minutes to respond.
Thank you, Mr Owen, for overseeing our proceedings today. I am grateful to the Minister for being in her place and to so many colleagues for showing so much interest in this important matter.
I have a view of our armed forces that is similar to my view of other public services. Just as with the NHS and the police, I revere the people who work for those services for being the best at what they do and for showing exceptional courage and professionalism. I also accept that the armed forces, like other public servants, sometimes fail. In wanting them to remain the best armed forces in the world, I want there to be a proper sanctioned system, clearly understood by all ranks, to act as a deterrent against those who might break the rules of law. Here I admit a prejudice. As somebody who has served on operations and saw men under my command have their self-control tested to the extreme, I constantly wonder how young men, often with little education, can show such intelligent restraint at times of great provocation. I am only talking about Northern Ireland.
This year sees the 25th anniversary of the first Gulf war. Hundreds of thousands of young men and women have seen more combat in the quarter century since than in any period since the Korean war. To mark it, Help for Heroes, in conjunction with King’s College London, has produced an in-depth report that shows that roughly between 60,000 and 70,000 regular veterans and around 20,000 reservists will need our support in the coming years as they face the effects of combat. Those are the people I will talk about today and they should be our absolute priority.
I secured this debate because something has happened to some of our veterans in recent years that I think needs the urgent attention of Government. Some call it “lawfare”. It is having a profound effect on the morale of our armed forces and on how we will be able to fight wars in the future.
My hon. Friend is right, and I would add that when decisions are taken through judicial process, with the benefit of hindsight, sometimes more than a decade later, it is very hard to try and put oneself in the position of those who are taking the difficult action.
Does my hon. Friend agree with one of my constituents who explained in an email that the present wars are not the same as wars in the past, where it was obvious who the enemy was and certain standards were adhered to on both sides? We are working in very difficult times at the moment.
Most of the asymmetric conflicts that we have fought in recent years are extremely difficult. We are fighting an enemy who does not sign up to the Geneva convention and the basic rules of war. I will make suggestions for the Minister that I think might address those concerns. My hon. Friend is, as always, absolutely right.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) co-wrote a landmark report last year called, “Clearing the Fog of Law”. I recommend it to hon. Members. In it he makes some recommendations that are intellectually researched and will go a long way to address the problem that we discuss today. I am also grateful for any contribution to the debate from my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) whose understanding of these issues within the machinery of Government is second to none.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who has asked me to say he is sorry he cannot be here as he is in hospital, wrote a powerful article last week in which he described an action in which a sniper shot and killed an insurgent who was about to fire an RPG-7 round towards troops. The shot was made from 1,200 metres—an act of skill that is hard to imagine. However, in absolutist terms, it could be that this fatality was illegal as the sniper did not issue a verbal warning. To give such a warning in a language that an assailant can understand over that distance is clearly a ridiculous concept, even before you try to second-guess the thoughts racing through the sniper’s mind as he balanced the rules of engagement with the safety of his mates. I think he did the right thing. Now we are led to believe that he is being investigated because a firm of lawyers—sitting, no doubt, in the comfort of offices in London or Birmingham—have realised that there is money to be made here. The lawyers have tracked down the deceased’s family, who have no doubt been told of the riches available on a no win, no fee basis or possibly from legal aid. This has to stop.
The Iraq Historic Allegations Team was being set up in the last days of the previous Labour Government. It was put into operation by the coalition Government for a perfectly respectable reason, and no doubt also to offset some of the threats from international judicial processes, to tackle alleged crimes in that conflict.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. I was an opponent of the International Criminal Court Bill that was proposed by the Labour Government and would have subjected our soldiers to the International Criminal Court. I said at the time that
“we must foresee the possibility of the court saying that this country has been unwilling to take action although we believe that it would be inappropriate for our national courts to do so. In such circumstances we must provide maximum protection to our troops.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 1 May 2001; c. 247-48.]
Is it not the case that the Government introduced this because it feared that otherwise our troops would have been taken to the International Criminal Court?
I find it depressing that we are talking about this so long after my right hon. Friend made those remarks. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister what advice she has received about the need for the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. Perhaps the debate will be able to draw out some of the reasoning for it.
As we know, IHAT was set up in 2010 by the then Minister, Sir Nick Harvey, who in a written statement said that he expected it to complete its work within two years. In July 2014, the Secretary of State recognised that IHAT’s work was not going to be completed by the end of 2016. He approved additional funding of £24 million to cover the period from the end of 2016 to the end of 2019, which increased the level of funding of IHAT to £57.2 million. I want us to think of 2019 in relation to when some of the instances it is investigating actually took place.
IHAT employs 145 people and is still recruiting. The job specs actually say that contracts are initially short term, but are likely to be extended for significantly longer. The IHAT website gives 2019 as the likely date when it will complete its work. If it was exposing systematic and institutionalised war crimes, I would at least understand why such persistence was a good idea, and feel that the cost to the British taxpayer was justified. Estimates in the press say it costs £5 million a year, but other estimates vary. A look at IHAT’s website shows that 18 investigations have been completed, one of which has resulted in measures being taken against somebody, and a £3,000 fine being awarded. Of the others, 15 cases have been dropped and two cases have been passed to other authorities, but no action has been forthcoming.
By June last year, following a huge increase in IHAT’s caseload, the diagnosis was even worse. It is not necessary to be a mathematician to appreciate that, at this rate, the task of investigating allegations arising from the activities of British armed forces in Iraq will never be fully completed. The Ministry of Defence guide describes what has happened to the 59 allegations of unlawful killing that IHAT has reviewed up to this month: 34 cases have been closed, or are in the process of being closed, with no further disciplinary action; seven are currently subject to further limited, focused lines of inquiry; and 17 are under investigation. Only one of those cases was referred to the Director of Prosecutions, who directed that there should be no prosecution. So, on the face of it, that is not a great record.
At this stage, I want to make it clear that I do not blame the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. It no doubt has worthy detectives sifting the evidence, but after 10 years it is finding two things: evidential trails have run cold; and it is being inundated with claims, many spurious and many the result of the malign actions of lawyers, who see this is a Klondike-style fee-fest or, perhaps, as a way to get at the system that conducted what they believe to be an unjust war. If anyone doubts my last remark, I suggest looking at the interview on YouTube given by Mr Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers to that great beacon of impartiality, Russia Today.
IHAT’s caseload now involves just over 1,500 alleged victims, 1,235 of whom are victims of ill treatment and 280 of unlawful killing. Given that backlog, the burden will hang over the heads of many of our veterans for many more months and probably years. That is utterly intolerable.
All that falls into the concept of what “Clearing the Fog of Law” calls “legal imperialism”. The worst case of such a culture are the allegations that culminated in the al-Sweady inquiry. The allegations surround actions taken during what became known as the battle for Danny Boy, a brutal attack on a checkpoint of that name resulting in a fierce firefight. British troops showed exceptional courage and resolve, and a number were decorated for bravery. The inquiry that followed cost £31 million; the fees were about £5 million. Some mistreatment was discovered, but the allegations of torture, mutilation and murder were baseless and the product, according to the judge, of “deliberate and calculated lies”.
The Government and many others have accused the two firms promoting the cases, Public Interest Lawyers and Leigh Day, of attempting “to traduce” the reputations of the Army units concerned. We have heard that the alleged actions of one of the law firms, Leigh Day, have resulted in referral to the Solicitors Regulation Authority. I hear that Public Interest Lawyers might also be referred to that body.
We could all take up lots of time venting our collective spleen at the behaviour of firms that trawl places such as Basra trying to convince people of the great riches in proving that they were victims of bad behaviour. We could take up much more time asking the shadow Defence Secretary, the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), why she and the Labour party thought it right to accept donations or donations in kind from those firms.
I share my hon. Friend’s feelings. Rather than spend the time talking about our views of those lawyers, however, which would be self-indulgent, I want to get to the bottom of this concept of legal imperialism.
I am glad that since I requested the debate the Prime Minister has announced that he has asked the National Security Council to produce a comprehensive plan to stamp out the industry. He is looking at banning no win, no fee schemes; he is speeding up the planned legal aid residency test; and he is strengthening penalties against firms that abuse the system, possibly even including suing those who have been found deliberately to withhold facts that could prove the innocence of the servicemen or women concerned.
That is all good stuff, but I want to press the Minister for more information on the timescale for the reforms. I suggest that they can only be seen as work in progress. May I respectfully suggest that the Minister add to the Prime Minister’s wish list the suggestions made in the report by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling?
In order to draw a line under the situation, for recent and future conflicts the Prime Minister should consider these powerful recommendations. The Government should derogate from the European convention on human rights in respect of future overseas armed conflicts, using the mechanism of article 15 of the convention. The Government should revive the armed forces’ Crown immunity from actions in tort during all future “warlike operations” overseas by ministerial Order under the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Act 1987. The Government should take the lead—this is important—in supporting efforts by the International Committee of the Red Cross to strengthen the Geneva conventions on the conditions of modern warfare, which addresses the point made in an early intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani). The Government should make an authoritative pronouncement of state policy, declaring the primacy of the Geneva conventions in governing the conduct of British forces on the battlefield.
I am grateful that we are having this debate. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that alongside the conflicts of the past we need to concentrate on the past in Northern Ireland as well? We should also look at a proactive media presence so that we are in front when defending our servicemen, rather than waiting for every case to get to the papers.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I support the plea by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) that incidents such as that of the arrest of Lance Corporal J of the Paras under caution should cease. Society wants a line drawn under such things. We seem to have moved too far towards favouring the actions of our enemies and we do not seem mindful enough of those to whom we owe a great debt.
The recommendations I have just outlined are clearly set out in the report of my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling. It makes it clear that we are not only talking about alleged victims of war crimes, excessive violence in combat or the mistreatment of prisoners. The definition of “lawfare” extends to the ability of the courts to judge the actions of commanders—decisions often taken in the heat of battle and then judged years later by people for whom such circumstances are alien and with the mantle of hindsight.
I go back to my own experience. I got to know well a 19-year-old soldier who, in a tense situation, shot and killed someone contrary to the so-called “yellow card” rules for opening fire. He was convicted for murder. The case has haunted me for 34 years. My worry is that the legal imperialism we have seen in recent years and the existence of organisations such as IHAT will put a dangerous caution in the minds of the sniper of the future. Rather than taking a life to save many, caution prompted by a fear of legal implications might, to quote my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex,
“put a splint around his trigger finger”.
The analogy extends into every area of war, involving everyone from the most junior soldier just out of training to the most gnarled veteran of a quarter century of expeditionary warfare. The Apache pilot, the mortar platoon commander and the frontline rifleman all need to be governed by the rule of law—but which law? That is the matter that the Minister and the Government must tackle with haste. However despicable we might think the actions of certain lawyers are, they are only responding to circumstances created by Governments past and present. My argument is that the rules we have created put our servicemen and women in greater danger in future. That cannot be right.
I pay huge tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for such an excellent speech and for bringing the subject to the Westminster Hall Chamber. I will now gabble through my speech in two minutes and 51 seconds.
As a former soldier, I welcome the opportunity to put on the record how deeply disturbing I find the relentless pursuit of our servicemen and women by unscrupulous and opportunistic lawyers. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to clamp down on the abuse, but I wish he would go further. I understand, however, that shutting investigations down would create an even more legalistic nightmare.
We all acknowledge that if and when atrocities are committed, or are alleged to have been committed, they need to be investigated. The Iraq Historic Allegations Team was established for that purpose in a genuine attempt to right historic wrongs and to deliver effective criminal investigation of allegations of murder, abuse and torture. In the case of Baha Mousa, for example, it worked.
One of the problems of the investigations now is the time that they are taking. Over the past five years, only a small number of the 1,500 cases have been looked at, and then only after nearly £60 million was given to IHAT to look into the allegations. Will the Minister comment on that when she sums up?
Another problem is that hundreds of the cases were fed to IHAT by only two legal firms, Public Interest Lawyers and Leigh Day.
I really do not have time, so I will fire on, if I may.
The perception is that left-leaning lawyers are intent on undermining one of the pillars of the establishment—namely, the armed forces. Given the opportunity, they are jumping to the task with relish. Unbelievably, it is alleged that middlemen touting for clients in Iraq received referral fees, which are prohibited, thus inviting fabrication and fantasy, which was never the intention. Those self-serving and unscrupulous firms have wrapped themselves in the banner of human rights, creating a compensation industry funded by the taxpayer.
Although I am delighted to learn that the gravy train is now coming off the rails, with both firms facing the Solicitors Regulation Authority and Leigh Day now referred to the solicitors disciplinary tribunal, the damage has been done and remains in the huge backlog of cases. For example, one British soldier could now in turn face investigations by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team and the International Criminal Court at the Hague; civil claims for compensation in the High Court; and finally an inquest by the Iraq fatality investigations—you couldn’t make it up!
Our soldiers are left feeling persecuted and betrayed. Those still serving are demoralised and people thinking of serving may think again. How on earth will we prosecute a war in the future if at every turn our servicemen and women fear being investigated for doing their duty, which, let us not forget, is to kill the enemy?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, especially in this debate, which has aroused so much interest around the country and goes to the heart of so much in UK politics at the moment. I thank the hon. and gallant Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for bringing the debate to the House.
There is no doubt that the personnel of our armed forces do their job with a minimum of fuss, operating in conditions that most civilians would find intolerable, usually to a remarkable standard, because of which they are worthy of our praise and we must take time to understand specific circumstances. However, just as those men and women are the pride of their communities, we can be proud of our record on human rights, rooted in historic documents such as Magna Carta and, in Scotland, the Declaration of Arbroath.
In this debate, we should remark on the fact that IHAT is something of a classic British fudge. The idea that we should allow the UK to uphold its commitment to human rights, while protecting those who have given so much from unnecessary legal intrusion, has instead become an underfunded, sub-prime body that has lost the confidence of many it purports to help. It is also unfortunate that this necessary debate has been somewhat hijacked by those who seem to be obsessed by promoting an anti-European agenda.
In my work in the Select Committee on Defence, on which I serve with the hon. Member for Newbury and others here today, it has been made clear to me that we have the most professional, dedicated and capable armed forces in the world. They are men and women who hold themselves to the highest standards both at home and abroad. I am sure we agree that they are experienced personnel and professionals who can account for and justify their decisions on the battlefield. That does not mean, however, that there is not room for improvement in their practices.
The three services are a result of steady evolution, adaptation and best practice. It must be noted that a strong commitment to human rights has played a vital part in that evolution. We must agree, however, that the allegations brought forward are serious. The very reputation of our armed forces—indeed, the reputation of the UK and its commitment to human rights—relies on proper adherence to procedures and the rule of law.
On the other side is the ridiculous list of cases brought forward that contain false or exaggerated allegations that exploit the fundamental character of the justice system. Soldiers who have served with distinction and valour in the Iraqi conflict should not be unnecessarily hounded. Many in my party are clear that those who abuse the system must be dealt with severely.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for his kind words and for calling for the debate. I will try to reduce my speech in so far as I can, but these matters did concern me in my working life for many years. I was in charge of the MOD’s litigation team in the Treasury Solicitor’s Department when the claims started flooding in in 2010. We faced a tsunami of litigation. I am not going to talk about individual cases, but I will give some recommendations from my experience.
First, IHAT was the least bad option available. The civil courts are not the place for criminal investigations to take place. Some of the claims made were very serious and needed to be investigated. IHAT is independent but secure. It is staffed by excellent officers who can investigate criminal allegations. Unlike the Baha Mousa inquiry, for example, they can refer cases to the Service Prosecuting Authority. Given where we are at the moment, IHAT should be encouraged to press on, but we should find new ways to deal with such issues in any future conflict.
Secondly, lawyers should not act without real clients with whom they are in touch and from whom they can take instructions. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] If, for example, offers of settlement are made, it is essential that a lawyer can get in touch with their client immediately; anything less makes litigation impossible.
Thirdly, access by IHAT officers to the Iraqi complainant should have been provided with speed, but it was not. I can see no explanation for that at all. There is no need, nor is it usual in police investigations, for those who complain of a crime to be represented by a lawyer from the other side of the world.
Fourthly, our disclosure rules should not be used to pervert the course of litigation and push the Ministry of Defence into a position where it feels it cannot defend itself or its soldiers. Fifthly, I support scrutiny of whether legal aid should be available to non-UK nationals bringing action against the Government. That money, in my view, would be much better spent on rebuilding Iraq than on lawyers based in the UK.
Sixthly, I think the UK should derogate from the European convention on human rights—I am certainly no anti-European—whenever we deploy soldiers abroad. The authors of the convention, who were writing at a time when the horror of the holocaust and the battlefield was still fresh, intended international humanitarian law to apply to soldiers. International humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict is robust law, designed for that very purpose; the ECHR is not.
In conclusion, we are not dealing in the main with the fog of the battlefield, but rather with the confusion of detention and interrogation. In Iraq, solders were detaining men who minutes before might have been shooting at them or killing their friends or who were believed to have had information that might have helped us to prevent further attacks on our troops. They were usually not in custody suites, offices or cells, and time for gathering information was perilously short. It was hot—
I do not want to repeat much of what has been said already, but as everyone knows the situation has got completely out of hand. It is beyond parody, because what we find ourselves in is not the product of any of the individuals now charged with sorting this out. Throughout the rest of the world, there is not another country whose legislators or political representatives are putting its servicemen and women through anything remotely similar. Every day, those same legislators use the freedom of speech and freedom of will that so many have fought so hard to defend. Indeed, we are the only first-world country that seems to take such a passive and reactive approach to anything to do with veterans’ affairs.
That we find ourselves in this situation is astonishing, baffling, embarrassing and wrong. That we can take a battlefield and all that goes into it—train hard, work hard and be the best we can possibly be to ensure success—and then have our homework marked by those whose love of this country does not wander far beyond their own bank balance is simply beyond me. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] We cannot withdraw from IHAT now—I accept that. That we are here is ridiculous, but here we are and we must, as ever, fight our way out.
What is really going on in this investigation? Our soldiers have retired police officers who have answered the noble call of exciting new opportunities and above market rates of pay turning up at their door with a letter summoning them to court, with no warning. Yes, they have access to a lawyer afterwards from the MOD, but they got no warning from the Government they represented that this—a Government inquiry—is turning up. That is not good enough.
No one has a problem with scrutiny. Our professionalism is what separates us from the rest. We work so hard to imbue moral courage in our men and women, along with mental strength and resilience, precisely to get decisions right in warfare. The truth is that, by and large, we do that and, when they do not, someone speaks up and it is dealt with, without fear or favour, for we are the British Army and we are embarked on a relentless pursuit of excellence.
I do not know how many times I must say this in this place, but I will keep going until my time here is done. We have a duty to look after these people and this is not how to do it. I urge the Government to follow the Prime Minister’s lead and do everything they can to protect our men and women: be proactive; warn them of what is coming; calm them; and support their families. The time for letting veterans fend for themselves and seek out a charitable shoulder for support is over. It ends in this Parliament. These people are the best of us—the true patriots; the warrior generation. We owe these men and women. Let us not let them down.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing the debate. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer).
We ask our armed forces to serve us abroad, so that we can be safe at home. I represent a constituency with a proud military tradition, particularly in the naval sphere. I hear and see at first hand the service and sacrifice of our armed forces, and therefore my constituents and I share what the Prime Minister described as the “deep concern” that Iraq war veterans could face the threat of prosecution due to fabricated or unjustified claims.
Although we expect our armed forces to adhere to the rule of law and the rules of engagement, we should commit to ensuring that we protect them from those who irresponsibly abuse the process of law. I therefore very much welcome the commitment from the Secretary of State for Defence to clamp down on bad practices. I also support the Prime Minister’s action. Asking the National Security Council to produce a clear, detailed plan of how we can stop our troops facing this torment is positive news.
I hope the Minister will confirm that the National Security Council’s work is proceeding well. Several of the proposed steps are especially welcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury referred to the imposition of strict time limits for the lodging of claims, to residency requirements, to the prevention of no win, no fee deals and to the reviewing of legal aid provision to certain firms that have been implicated in the al-Sweady deal. Those are all very welcome.
The unjustified claims against British troops are harmful for at least three reasons. Operationally, such claims harm morale. They affect recruitment and damage the operational effectiveness of our troops at a time when we are relying on them more than ever. From a financial perspective, every false claim that IHAT and the Government respond to, investigate and defend diverts spending from the frontline at an important time in our country’s activities. Politically, such claims threaten to unjustifiably undermine the outstanding work of our armed forces in the eyes of the public, even when those claims are later found to be unfounded. The al-Sweady inquiry, which reported last year, is a case in point.
Time is short. In closing, I hope that all hon. Members will join me in paying tribute to not only our armed forces but the many charities that champion and care for our veterans when they come home, from Combat Stress and SSAFA to the Royal British Legion. Their approach stands in stark contrast with those who pursue our veterans, rather than protecting and caring for them.
Finally, I congratulate again my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury on securing this timely debate on an important issue. I welcome the Government’s commitment to positive action and look forward to hearing from the Minister. I am confident that when she gets to her feet, she will reassure us that this Government are very much on the side of our brave armed forces personnel, who serve us abroad and protect us at home.
It is very difficult for any civilian to sit in judgment of a soldier. I have no experience of the unique and extraordinary pressures under which they operate, nor the snap life and death decisions they are forced to make. Too many people in the legal profession lack the wisdom or the humility to take that view and hound our veterans with self-righteous enthusiasm.
Just this week, the BBC announced that the Iraq Historic Allegations Team has dropped nearly 60 cases of alleged unlawful killing—cases that have cast a shadow over the lives of innocent veterans. As we know, in 2014 the al-Sweady inquiry found that previous allegations against British troops in Iraq were “deliberate and calculated lies” intended to smear our military at a cost of £31 million, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) said. As a result, Leigh Day, one of the law firms involved, faces a full disciplinary tribunal from the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The Prime Minister has threatened to sue that company to recover the millions of pounds it has claimed in costs, and I hope he will find support from across the House for that measure. He has also outlined a broader crackdown on so-called tank chasers, including reforms to legal aid, to no win, no fee arrangements and to the civil courts regime.
Clear-cut, conventional wars against uniformed enemies are increasingly a thing of the past. Today’s foes increasingly know no rules of war, yet just as the old conventions of conflict are breaking down, we are handing our opponents unprecedented opportunities to attack our troops in the courts. Even though it is right we hold our armed forces to high standards, such self-flagellation is completely ridiculous.
Such challenges are not confined to the middle east. Veterans of the campaign against IRA terrorism in Northern Ireland face their very own historical inquisition. Meanwhile, the terrorists they were fighting—men and women who deliberately targeted civilians and murdered several Members of this House—are shielded by an amnesty. I understand that it is important to hold our armed forces to account, but this country has one of the most disciplined, effective and professional armies in the world, and we should be proud of it.
Unless we trust our troops and give them the leeway they need to make hard decisions in extraordinary circumstances, we will find it increasingly difficult to wage war at all. Troops on the battlefield will hesitate to act, for fear of years of harassment and potential prosecution. Potential recruits will see the reward for serving and seek careers elsewhere.
War is, and will always be, a messy and brutal business. Rules designed for civilian life are inadequate for its challenges, and we shall only end up crippling the armed forces if we make perfection the enemy of good in upholding the conduct of conflict. Cases against our forces should be considered and advanced by an uninterested party, not by lawyers looking to maximise profit.
I congratulate my good friend, the hon. and gallant Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), on securing the debate.
Just over 400 soldiers have contacted me. Most of them I have never met; some I knew from my service. I want to represent them in the short time I have, and I want two thoughts to be brought to the attention of the House. The first is that those soldiers feel they are being chased down by unscrupulous lawyers who do not give a damn about their wellbeing, some of whom seem to imply the soldiers are guilty before that is proven.
The soldiers feel extremely irritated that the Ministry of Defence seems to have set up an organisation to join with those lawyers to chase the soldiers down. I use the word “seem” because the soldiers do not understand why that is happening. We can spend all the time we like explaining and saying, “It’s because we’ve got to investigate things. We’ve got to do it properly, otherwise you’ll go to the International Criminal Court,” but our men and women in uniform do not accept that, so this is a communication problem.
My second thought is this. I have given evidence with my soldiers in Northern Ireland on murder charges and in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Our soldiers, our men, our women, our sailors, our airmen and our airwomen loathe doing that. They are frightened by having to appear in court in front of slippery-tongued lawyers who have a much better gift of the gab than they do. They feel they will slip up, and that terrifies them. Often, their thought is, “I’d much prefer to be on the frontline, under fire, than in this poxy court where no one seems to be on my side.”
The problem we have is trying to tell our servicemen and servicewomen that this is actually for their own benefit. I had to tell two soldiers, after they had been in a firefight, that they were being charged with murder in Ireland. They did not believe it was possible. I explained that the reason was to take them to court to prove they had acted under the law, so that they could never be prosecuted again.
I speak, I admit, with some emotion on behalf of our men and women, and I tell you this: we should listen to them and communicate better.
I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on bringing forward this important debate, and I also congratulate my hon. Friends who have taken part in it. The debate demonstrates the strength of feeling in the House that our armed forces are not being well served by the campaign of what is known as lawfare, rather than warfare.
Our armed forces go and fight and do their best in the most difficult of circumstances. A number of my hon. and gallant Friends have been out in theatre. I have been to Afghanistan six times, so I know what it is like. I fear that by putting our armed forces into harm’s way in this fashion, we are undermining their morale and thereby threatening the war-fighting capability of the next generation of those who will be called upon to serve their country. I believe we are doing them a disservice.
The Prime Minister is absolutely right to express his concern about this matter. The Government need to do more; we owe it to the 120,000 troops who have served in Iraq in Her Majesty’s armed forces. We cannot have a situation where men and women go out to fight in the most appalling of circumstances, dealing with an enemy that they sometimes cannot distinguish from the civilian population. They do their level best and then come back—many of them suffering injuries and some of them traumatised—and may have to wait years before finding out that they might face prosecution from their own fellow civilians. That cannot be right.
I have constituents in Aldershot, the home of the British Army, who served with distinction in Northern Ireland. They still, 43 years on from Londonderry in 1972, face the possibility of prosecution. That is not right. It is not in the interests of natural justice that our men and women who serve our country should be treated in that fashion.
I thank the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) securing today’s debate. It is crucial that we not only support our service personnel but uphold human rights and have the UK show leadership in promoting international human rights.
Our armed forces carry out a vital role on our behalf, often in harsh and dangerous conditions. Their courage and professionalism are to their immense credit. As part of that professionalism, our armed forces should and must be able to justify their decisions and actions against clearly defined standards of conduct. When allegations are made that conduct has not met the high standards expected by both society and the armed forces, they must be taken seriously. When there is a case to answer, the case must be investigated fully and fairly.
Since the inception of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, a number of issues have arisen that require consideration, as many speakers have touched on today. They include the scope of the investigations, the considerable volume of the case load, the amount of time that has passed in some of the incidents involved and concerns about the credibility and veracity of the allegations. Each of those issues presents challenges to IHAT and to us, who oversee it, in the dispensing of justice.
The latest figures that I have seen indicate that 1,514 allegations have been reported to IHAT, making up 1,329 cases. Of those, 43 have been closed and 57 dropped, with 280 UK veterans under investigation. It is only fitting and fair that we are concerned about the number of allegations and the speed of the investigations, and it is no surprise that many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), have raised that issue.
I understand that IHAT has about 150 staff, so in my view, it is reasonable to question the speed at which cases are being dealt with. Indeed, if I were a member of a committee scrutinising the issue, I would have serious questions for witnesses and would be pressing them on the apparently slow rate of progress and for a comparison with other legal jurisdictions.
I fully understand that we are talking about a unique situation in many respects, given the challenges in investigating allegations. However, the rate of progress is an issue. The hon. Member for Newbury raised the issue of trails going cold on some of the investigations. We need to address that and face the reality that in some—indeed, many—cases, it might not be possible to get the evidence we need to establish whether an allegation is true. That might simply mean that the case cannot proceed, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.
Turning to the credibility and motives of those bringing complaints, which many Members have raised, I have concerns that there may well be instances in which the current system is being abused, and that spurious allegations are being brought against military personnel and service veterans. The answer lies in ensuring that we have a system in place that allows the prompt dismissal of cases that are brought on flimsy evidence or are not evidence-based. In cases where evidence is found to have been falsified or deliberately distorted, I would want to see penalties imposed for what I consider to be akin to the criminal charges of perverting the course of justice or, at the very least, wasting police time, or its equivalent in Scottish law.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) said, our legal system in this area must uphold the values of the European convention on human rights, as well as other international human rights treaties. We have to work with other nations to set an example of our values on human rights. Some Members have expressed the desire to derogate from the convention, but that is not the right way forward. The European convention on human rights was born out of the horrific events of world war two, which rightly made the international community think very carefully.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good point, but the problem with regard to derogation is that it was specifically intended by the authors to allow for operations outside the territory. The danger of the argument he is making is that the Scottish National party is turning soldiers from cannon fodder into courtroom fodder.
Time is now against me, but to address the hon. Gentleman’s point, I hope that we all accept the need to uphold standards of human rights. That should be the case across the world, wherever we send our armed forces. Our armed forces have our support and gratitude for the difficult work that they do on our behalf in defending not only us but our values. That means that our armed forces must always live by and espouse the same values that they defend with such distinction.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) not only on securing the debate, but on his excellent contribution and the valuable perspective that he brought to the debate—I think it informed all of us.
This important issue raises emotions and concerns among all hon. Members. It is a matter of tremendous national pride that Britain’s world-class armed forces are renowned across the globe for upholding the very highest military standards, so often while performing in the most dangerous of theatres, and are rightly acknowledged as being expected to conform to, and indeed as achieving, the very highest standards of ethical behaviour. None of us should forget for a moment the debt of gratitude that we owe to our servicemen and women, nor should we lack humility about what we in this House have expected of them under the most trying circumstances imaginable.
I turn to the purpose of establishing the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. Rather than begin a long drawn-out public inquiry, it was considered to be better for all parties concerned to deal with allegations on a case by case basis, managed by a dedicated team, to identify whether there were causes for concern and to manage the process in as timely a manner as possible. In November 2010, IHAT was given full investigatory powers by the coalition Government to ensure that the resulting investigations would be in keeping with the UK’s legal obligations under the European convention on human rights, and I share many of the concerns that hon. Members have raised today.
It is important to re-emphasise that although we all have tremendous respect for our armed forces and the work they do, and although we are all conscious of the danger of malicious inquiries and the effect that they would have on the morale and stress of those serving, nobody in this debate has been arguing that our soldiers are above the law. We have to ensure that when serious allegations are made, they are properly investigated. The UK is among the countries with the highest human rights standards in the world, and we should be proud of being held to those standards.
The work of IHAT, however, was initially due to be concluded in 2012. We are now in 2016, with the conclusion deferred at least until 2019. There is a genuine fear that IHAT is becoming exactly what it was designed to prevent: a drawn-out investigation that becomes a burden on valued members of the armed forces and the taxpayer alike. There is also a sense that the transparency and generosity of spirit evident in the setting up of the team is being abused by irresponsible law firms or malicious complainants.
Although it is right to ensure that allegations are properly investigated, we also have to prevent abuse of the public purse and ensure that our justice system is not being systematically abused. We are all aware of the recent allegations of ambulance chasing by certain law firms, and the Prime Minister rightly said today that certain firms clearly have questions to answer.
As we have heard, only this week 57 allegations of unlawful killing were dropped due to lack of evidence. That is 57 innocent soldiers who have had that hanging over their heads and have faced the prospect of prosecution for crimes of which they knew they were innocent. It is imperative that we do all we can to prevent that from happening again. However, using the alleged cases of ambulance chasing as an excuse to withdraw from the European convention on human rights seems to be the wrong approach. I am happy to look at the details of the Government’s proposals and to support evidence-based measures that discourage claims without merit and make sure they are not funded through legal aid.
I do not have time.
I believe that measures such as re-examining the current eligibility criteria for legal aid, or the development of a residency test for civil legal aid, would be very welcome. I know that I, like other Members, would have trouble explaining to my constituents in Chesterfield why an individual who has never set foot on British soil should be able to claim legal aid to bring civil legal action against a member of our armed forces at the UK taxpayer’s expense. Not only is the prospect of prosecution for an alleged historic crime traumatic for the serving soldier, but I am worried, as are other Members, that such a practice could act as a barrier to recruitment in future generations. For that reason, I am also interested to read the Government’s proposals on a time limit for individuals or firms to submit cases to IHAT.
I ask the Minister the following questions. How can the Government guarantee that only individuals with a strong connection with the UK will have access to UK-funded legal aid? Will the Government consider applying a specific time limit or cut-off date relating to allegations of human rights abuse in Iraq? What more can the Minister tell us about the success the Government have had in prosecuting firms who make malicious complaints, as the Prime Minister referred to today? Can she tell us what steps will be taken to enforce that approach and what criteria will be used to decide that a complaint is without merit? What impact do the Government believe the process is having on morale, on the stress levels of people who served in Iraq and on recruitment and retention within the Army, both among those who served in Iraq and more generally? Do the Government think that a timetable of 2019 for concluding the work of IHAT is acceptable, and what steps are they taking to support and reassure servicemen and women who suddenly find themselves within the process?
I want to reiterate our admiration for those who served in Iraq and assure the Government of our intention to support any practical steps that they can take to rebuild confidence in this process.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for securing this debate. He is a doughty champion of our armed forces and a former member of their number. I also thank, in particular, my hon. Friends the Members for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) who have spoken today and have been a great help to me in the work I have undertaken since May last year.
I also thank all hon. Members who have spoken in support of our armed forces today. We send them into harm’s way, dressed in body armour, to defend our freedom and national interest. It is not just their courage and capability that makes them the best; it is their values and the high standards we hold them to—values of self-discipline and self-sacrifice. Much of what they do in both war and peace is to uphold the rule of law, including international humanitarian law such as the well-known and well-understood Geneva conventions.
As a nation, we have chosen to invest in preserving and promoting those vital rules in armed conflict, ensuring they are reflected in all we do, and using our considerable reach to instil them in armed forces around the world. It is right that we meet the obligations on us to investigate credible allegations of human rights breaches, serious criminality and war crimes. How ironic then that those brave men and women, who do so much to protect and promote human rights and the laws that enshrine them, stand accused of wishing to exempt themselves from such obligations.
I will set out some of the shocking practices of those accusers, mainly two law firms, that concern us and what we are doing to meet our manifesto commitment. I will contrast that with the work of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team and provide an insight into its remit, its methods and some of the cases it has been dealing with which, if I do them justice, will reassure Members of the House and the armed forces.
I want to explain why protecting our armed forces from litigation motivated by malice and money is compatible with upholding human rights and the pursuit of justice, and that human rights and justice depend upon it. It is not about holding our armed forces above the law, as Leigh Day has suggested, but rather that we wish to uphold the primacy of international humanitarian law that helps to keep our armed forces safe, gives them the freedom to act in accordance with those laws, and protects human rights.
The ability to take prisoners, for example, is a well-understood good, and not being able to do so would have very grave consequences for both sides of a conflict. Any action that undermines or deviates from such rules is detrimental to our operational ability and to the safety of our own armed forces. We should make no apology for investigating and holding our armed forces to account for such actions. It is in our national interest to do so, as well as in that of the people who serve in our armed forces.
The steady creep of extending the reach of European human rights legislation, which was not written for conflict situations, is eroding international humanitarian law. The behaviour of parasitic law firms churning out spurious claims against our armed forces on an industrial scale is the enemy of justice and humanity, not our armed forces or the Ministry of Defence.
When I was interviewing various witnesses for the “Clearing the Fog of Law” report, the former Member, Jack Straw, was very specific about the reason for not derogating in advance of the Iraq conflict, which was that it was never thought that the European convention had extraterritorial jurisdiction. What other Members have called for—I particularly highlight my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis)—is very reasonable in the light of that experience.
My hon. Friend is right, and he knows what he is talking about.
When the courts entertain claims against our armed forces of the likes of an insurgent bomb-maker suing us for not shooting him in a fire fight, but instead taking him prisoner and holding him until we could guarantee he would not face mistreatment in the local justice system, it is not just our armed forces who suffer the strain on them and the corrupting effect on their behaviour in the field; the cause of human rights suffers too. Today, when faced with the likes of Leigh Day and PIL, we need to wrap our service personnel in more than just body armour when we send them out to defend freedom.
Shortly the National Security Council will meet to decide on a number of options to address all the concerns that hon. Members have expressed this afternoon. Over the last eight months, extensive work has been going on in the MOD and the MOJ on these issues. Hon Members have mentioned some of the options that may be brought forward, and there are others.
Specifically with regard to spurious litigation being brought against our service personnel and the conduct of legal firms, the Prime Minister has announced that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), and I will chair a working group to tackle every aspect of that, including conditional fee arrangements, legal aid rules and disciplinary sanctions against lawyers who are abusing the system or attempting to pervert the course of justice.
Against that backdrop, I understand that the work of IHAT has been tarred with the same brush. Hon. Members have spoken about why it was set up. It was to ensure that we have a domestic process as opposed to an international one. I want to give an insight into some of the cases, because they are illuminating.
In case No. 377, it was alleged that a passenger in a car was shot by an
“hysterical British soldier in a tank.”
That IHAT investigation ascertained that PIL had submitted the allegation in October 2014, despite Danish armed forces accepting liability for the incident and paying compensation in 2003.
In case No. 123, it was alleged that a 13-year-old girl had been killed when she picked up part of a UK cluster bomb that had failed to detonate. The IHAT investigation established that a 13-year-old boy had been killed, but was unable to ascertain whether Iraqi or UK munitions were responsible. PIL challenged the MOD’s decision not to refer it to the IFI—Iraq fatality investigations. The MOD defended the challenge on the basis of that information. Shortly before the hearing, PIL disclosed a witness statement by the boy’s father, made before the IHAT investigation, in which he said that the boy had been killed while in the vicinity of an Iraqi mobile missile launcher preparing to fire missiles into Kuwait that was destroyed by a coalition helicopter. There are many other cases that I could mention. It was concluded, after thorough investigation, that UK service personnel had acted in self-defence, in the defence of others, and lawfully.
IHAT enables us to meet our obligations to investigate serious wrongdoing, and its work is exonerating those wrongly accused and rejecting bogus allegations. I would add that the sniper case that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury mentioned is not an IHAT case. Its investigators—a mix of service personnel, police officers and legal experts—are doing a public service, and I pay tribute to them. They feel their responsibilities keenly. Those investigators did not set up IHAT; we did. That was done not by anyone in this Chamber today, but by a previous Government, and for sound legal and policy reasons—there should be a domestic system of accountability, because without that there would be an international one. I hope that I have set the record straight on that. However, some questions remain for us, the politicians.
Does the existence of IHAT invite such claims? Were we not funding it, would fewer cases be brought? Why are so many cases brought and why are they so poorly researched, lengthening the investigation process? How can we speed that up? What support is given to our armed forces during the process? The work of IHAT is independent of the MOD, and we would not interfere with its investigations or work, but those are genuine questions to look at. It is right that we look at further ways of speeding up the process without compromising the quality of its output or its independence.
I can reassure hon. Members that we do all we can to support our armed forces through such investigations, and that support is also embedded in the practices of IHAT. It does give notice of investigations, and hon. Members must flag it up if they have heard of instances in which that has not been the case. Support that the MOD routinely provides to service personnel includes the funding of legal costs and, where appropriate, the funding of judicial reviews, as well as pastoral support. We fund medical assessments and applications to excuse from giving evidence veterans and serving personnel who are not medically fit to do so. Indeed, some in the judiciary have criticised the MOD for providing the level of support that we do provide. Those obligations remain, whatever the theatre in which the actions took place, whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland or elsewhere, but we recognise the cost of all this to our servicemen and women and to the public purse.
The al-Sweady case, in which our armed forces were exonerated and which resulted in Leigh Day being referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, cost the MOD and the British taxpayer £31 million to stage—£31 million, I would argue, that would be better spent on equipment and support for our armed forces. The status quo is financially unsustainable and morally unjustifiable. To put this right falls to us in this place, and we must all be resolved to do so. This issue and the solutions that we will bring forward are complex, but the objective is simple: we must protect human rights and we must protect those who defend them—our armed forces.
You are very generous, Mr Owen. I thank hon. Members for taking part in the debate and particularly the Minister, who has proved, as she always does, that she is a very good Minister indeed and has understood the feeling in this place and beyond it—that is what is really important. Can she pick up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and really communicate to the cohort in our armed forces today that they will get our support throughout the process and ensure that they understand why this has been set up and that we are moving away from allowing this culture to continue?
I will finish by saying to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) that this has nothing to do with Europe. I have similar views on Europe to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis). I understand the history of the European Court, its place in our society and the convention on human rights. This is about trying to ensure that we have the best legal vehicle for dealing with these matters.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).