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Armed Forces (Statute of Limitations)

Volume 630: debated on Wednesday 1 November 2017

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to create statutory limitations on court proceedings against current and former members of the armed forces for certain alleged offences committed during military operations or similar circumstances; and for connected purposes.

Everyone in this House, and particularly those of us who have served in the armed forces, wants our armed forces always to be seen as the most professional in the world. This means we want them to abide by the strict codes of behaviour we impose on them and, in addition, to abide by the international rules of war.

In the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland and elsewhere, we have asked our armed forces to operate in highly complex war-fighting scenarios. Almost to a man and a woman, they have acquitted themselves in the finest traditions of the three services. The reputation of this country and our armed forces has been enhanced by their professionalism, restraint, compassion and courage.

There is a problem, however. First, there has emerged out of the Iraq conflict an industry in which lawyers—sadly, often dishonest lawyers—have used vast amounts of public money to attempt to bring cases against current and former members of the armed forces. If there was any truth in these cases, that would be one thing, but the abject failure of the allegations to stick shows how vile and corrupted the process became.

The Government were right to close down the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. The organisation was processing over 3,000 cases, which gives an indication of the absurdity of some of those claims. My understanding is that just 20 cases were running at the time of IHAT’s demise, and none of those is believed to be viable by prosecutors.

My Bill would bring an end to what has become known as “lawfare”. Never again would dreadful individuals such as Phil Shiner be able to line their pockets, or the pockets of their legal firms, with vast amounts of public funds while pursuing our veterans into old age.

My Bill would set a statute of limitations beyond which it would be impossible to bring a case against any individual about whom an allegation was made regarding actions he or she took while serving on operations. I would argue that 10 years is the right period for which to legislate. I fully accept that there would have to be caveats and exceptions, and my Bill would define what we mean by operations. A decade gives plenty of time to bring forward legitimate cases in which real wrongdoing has occurred, and it is about the timescale after which evidential trails start to run cold. The House should be indebted to the Defence Committee, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), and the Sub-Committee that met under the leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), because their work on this issue has informed the Bill.

Later this month in Belfast, a 78-year-old man will face charges including attempted murder. Dennis Hutchings was an exemplary soldier who ended his career as a senior warrant officer. He has a severe heart condition and only 11% kidney function. The allegations against him relate to an incident in 1974 when a patrol he was leading in Northern Ireland—this was a time of intense terrorist activity—fired on an individual, who was killed. In 1975, he was told that no action would be taken against him or any member of his patrol, and that was confirmed many years later with a similar message from the Director of Public Prosecutions.

So what has changed? No new evidence is being laid before the courts—in fact there is less evidence, as two of the three witnesses are dead—and the firearms, casings and original file have been lost, but the Northern Ireland Director of Public Prosecutions claimed in January that new evidence had come to light. Many fear that we are seeing a form of retributive politics. Extreme nationalist-leaning individuals in the Northern Ireland justice system have decided to reignite such investigations.

The Government have rightly said that there should be no bias in how such investigations are carried out but, unfortunately, there already is a bias. Of the 3,600 deaths in the troubles, 90% were at the hands of terrorists. These were people who went out with the express intention of killing and maiming. The security forces went out with the express intention of saving lives. I spent most of my time in the fields and streets of Northern Ireland—most of my early 20s were spent there—protecting prison officers, reservists and police officers from being assassinated in or near their homes. So please can we end this argument that there is some kind of equivalence between terrorists and the security forces? There is a limit of two years for any former terrorist found guilty after the Good Friday agreement was signed. Many feel that the on-the-runs letters, which were part of the Good Friday agreement, effectively give terrorists a statute of limitations.

More than 300,000 people served in Op Banner in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 2007. Those of us who are still alive will testify to the complexity of that operation. Many of us, myself included, witnessed acts of extraordinary restraint and professionalism by young soldiers in the face of extraordinary provocation.

Like most Op Banner veterans, I have been moved by the ability of community leaders and politicians to bury the enmities of the past, and to enter government with those who killed, or ordered the killings of, people they knew. Of course there are ongoing tensions in Northern Ireland, and we all hope these can be ironed out in the coming weeks and months. However, in the main, what Northern Ireland has done in the last few years is so impressive—it is moving on. It is moving on from the horrors of killing and maiming.

Terrorists who would otherwise be in prison walk free under the terms of the Good Friday agreement. The person who slaughtered seven members of my battalion’s band while they were playing to tourists in Regent’s Park is known to the authorities but is not pursued. So why is Dennis Hutchings being pursued? Why are we now facing the possibility of many more veterans receiving the knock on the door? My Bill would end this nonsense. Op Banner ended 10 years ago, and so would all pursuits of veterans into old age by a flawed and, some would argue, deeply prejudicial judicial system.

If we discuss this with any audience, we get a clear message that unites left and right, old and young, and people who have a detailed knowledge of military matters and those who have none. They want to draw a line under the troubles. For them, hounding Dennis Hutchings and others to the ends of their lives is abhorrent.

Those who agree that these prosecutions and investigations are wrong, but disagree that this is the way forward, have to answer some clear and resounding questions. What would they do to end this grotesque charade? Do we just put up with it and hope that no one notices? Can we imagine any other country in the world doing this to its veterans? Do we really want to see people who should be appreciated—even revered—for what they did being taken from their homes, questioned, and prosecuted for actions they took on our behalf many decades ago in one of the most impossible campaigns of modern times? It is time for this House to reflect the mood of the vast majority of people in society.

Question put and agreed to.


That Richard Benyon, Richard Drax, Emma Little Pengelly, Dr Julian Lewis, Johnny Mercer, Mrs Madeleine Moon, Jim Shannon, Bob Stewart, Leo Docherty, Mr Kevan Jones, Sir Nicholas Soames and James Gray present the Bill.

Richard Benyon accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 15 June 2018 and to be printed (Bill 120).