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Armed Forces: Legal Claims

Volume 606: debated on Monday 29 February 2016

13. What support his Department provides to members of the armed forces who are subject to legal claims relating to their service. (903768)

Where there are allegations of serious wrongdoing, they need to be investigated, but we are very aware of the stress this places on our service personnel and we must honour our duty of care to them. This will involve funding independent legal advice and pastoral support. We are also aware, however, that a great many allegations are being made on grounds of malice or by some law firms for profit. We will shortly bring forward measures to close down this shameless and shoddy racket.

The allegations that British soldiers murdered innocent Iraqis were found by the al-Sweady inquiry to be wholly false. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that we should do all we can to reclaim costs from law firms that shamefully promoted these allegations and that anyone who received financial backing from them would be well advised either to return it or to make a donation to Help for Heroes?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point. The defence in the case that he mentioned cost the British taxpayer £31 million, and the law firm involved, Leigh Day, has been referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. We are looking at ways in which we can recoup costs, in that case and in others. Those who have their own associations with Leigh Day will need to make their own judgments.

May I ask the Minister to speak more clearly, over the heads of the current brave soldiers and other servicemen, to those who might wish to join the Army, the Air Force or the Navy? It is very worrying for young people to think that, in serving their country, they might end up being accused of dreadful crimes.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity to send that clear message about a matter that obviously causes huge stress to individual service personnel. It corrupts their operations, and it undermines human rights by undermining international humanitarian law. I fully understand why someone who wanted to join the armed forces would be concerned about all three of those issues, and we shall be introducing a number of measures to address them.

The Minister and, indeed, the Secretary of State have been very vocal about the importance of introducing a Bill to protect service personnel from spurious, costly and stressful legal actions. However, there have been apparently well-informed reports that the Bill is ready to proceed, but is being held up in Downing Street for fear that it might somehow impinge on the forthcoming European Union referendum debates. Can the Minister confirm that her Department will do as much as possible to ensure that the Bill is introduced at the earliest opportunity, and is not delayed for spurious external political reasons?

I can give my right hon. Friend those reassurances. I think that, in all respects, the information on which he based his question is not correct. A number of measures will be introduced, some of which may be attached to pieces of legislation, and we hope to be able to make announcements before local government purdah kicks in.