We will move directly on to our next debate, which is extremely popular. There will be 20 minutes for the winding-up speeches. After Sir Henry Bellingham has spoken for a smart 10 minutes, that leaves about 30 minutes for eight Back-Bench contributions. My maths tells me that that is just over three minutes each. I will not impose a time limit, but if hon. Members have a voluntary time limit of about three minutes each, let us see how we get on. Let us not have too many interventions in this important debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered historic allegations against veterans.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. The first and foremost duty of any Government is to protect and defend their citizens from internal threats and threats from abroad—away from the UK. Young servicemen and women put their lives on the line. Parliament and the Government have a duty of care to them at the time and a subsequent duty of care when they become veterans. I will talk mainly about Operation Banner in Northern Ireland, but other hon. Members may well talk about other theatres.
We know that 3,500 people were killed in the so-called troubles. Of that number, 2,000 were killed by republican terrorists, 1,000 were killed by loyalist paramilitaries and 370 were killed by security forces. In total, 722 members of the security services, which mainly comprised serving British soldiers, were killed. No other army in the world would have shown the sort of restraint that our Army showed in Northern Ireland. The very fact that twice as many soldiers were killed by terrorists as terrorists were killed by soldiers illustrates that point.
All those cases have been investigated fully, but there are a few outstanding terrorist cases. I entirely understand and accept the need for closure. I also understand the implications of the Good Friday agreement and the legacy issues, and I feel for the families and loved ones who want some sort of closure. Of course, matters are complicated by the 365 Royal pardons that were granted, by the on-the-run letters and by the 500-plus prisoners who were released on licence between 1998 and 2000. So far, everything has been weighing much more heavily against the former servicemen and in favour of the terrorists. There cannot be any parity or moral equivalence between terrorists and paramilitaries on the one hand and the police and armed forces on the other.
How can soldiers on duty be equated with terrorists and death squads? That appears to be what is happening here. There is a confusion and a bringing together of those two groups. They are being dealt with as one single group, and we therefore have an amnesty for all. That is, of course, abhorrent and immoral. How do we deal with that?
We have to draw a distinction: the police and armed forces were acting under statute. They showed immense bravery, professionalism and courage, and they were acting in support of the civil code and authorities. They were also acting under the Yellow Book—which the colonel, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), knows only too well—and if they deviated from it, they were dealt with severely.
A number of colleagues present will remember the case involving the four soldiers from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. A farmhouse was broken into and two civil rights campaigners, Michael Naan and Andrew Murray, were shot. There was an investigation; two sergeants were charged with and convicted of murder and another was convicted of attempted manslaughter. All three were sentenced to long prison terms. The officer in charge, who was not actually present—though, to be fair to what happened afterwards, he covered up—was charged and given a suspended sentence, and he resigned his commission. It is fair to say, therefore, that events and incidents such as that were dealt with incredibly firmly.
I would like my hon. Friend to address the point that was raised in the earlier intervention. There is a natural repulsion that one feels about equating the treatment of soldiers with that of terrorists, but that pass, surely, has already been sold because the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 provides that anyone—whether soldier or terrorist—convicted of having killed someone unlawfully cannot be sentenced to more than two years in jail. If the price of protecting soldiers against trials so long after the event is that we also have to protect everyone else, is not that a price that we ought to be willing to pay?
My right hon. Friend has done a lot of work on this, and I pay tribute to his work and that of his Committee. I have a way forward, which involves the statute of limitations, which covers the whole of the UK, but I shall come on to that.
Let us look at what the Police Service of Northern Ireland is doing, because that is relevant to the Dennis Hutchings case, which I am coming on to. In 2010 the PSNI set up the Historical Enquiries Team which, as colleagues know, completed investigations into nearly 1,600 cases. The PSNI then set up its legacy investigation branch which, as I understand it from the consultation issued by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, will morph into an historical investigations unit.
That unit, I believe, will look at the remaining 923 cases, of which 283 involve members of the security forces. So far, five cases involving them have been or are being investigated, leaving another 278. The cost so far has been £35 million, so if every one of those cases is investigated, we are talking about hundreds of millions of pounds. A number of former members of the security forces have been investigated and charged, as I said, including two retired veterans of the Parachute Regiment now aged 68 and 65, who have been charged with the 1972 murder of the infamous IRA commander Joe McCann.
Another such case is that of Dennis Hutchings. I declare an interest, because I know Dennis and I have had long discussions and meetings with him. However, it is important to look at his case in a bit more detail. The incident took place in 1974, which was an incredibly tough, difficult year in the Province. More than 300 people were killed. There were numerous bomb attacks on the mainland, too. On the day in question, 6 June, Dennis Hutchings was leading a four-man patrol in an area where firearms and bomb-making equipment had been found two days before. There had been an exchange of fire two days before. Dennis Hutchings had been commended for his bravery and was subsequently mentioned in dispatches for the way in which he had controlled the patrol two days before, when one of his patrol was hit and badly wounded.
On the day in question, Dennis Hutchings and his patrol went back to a village called Benburb. They chanced on John Pat Cunningham, who was challenged to give himself up. He was behaving in a suspicious manner; he had a suspicious piece of equipment on him. He did not answer the challenge. He moved away from the patrol. They thought they were threatened. They opened fire. It was a tragic case of mistaken identity. It was an innocent civilian that was killed.
I want to stress that the case was fully investigated at the time by the regiment, the military police and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It was investigated over a period of months. All the forensic evidence was looked at, the rifles were looked at, the bullets that were fired were examined in forensic laboratories, and witness statements were made. The men of the patrol were told by the Army legal service that that was the end of the case and they would have no more to fear.
Fast forward to 2011 and Dennis Hutchings was called before the Historical Enquiries Team. He was asked to go to Northern Ireland, where he was questioned over a period of time about the incidents that took place. He co-operated fully. When it became apparent that there was no evidence that would stand up in court, and that obviously no fair trial could take place, he was told by the PSNI investigators that that was the end of the matter—in 2011. He was told it was totally the end of the matter—that he could go back to his grandchildren, back to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), and enjoy the rest of his life, get on with the rest of his life. And that is what Dennis did.
We move forward to April 2015—four years on. There is a dawn raid on Corporal Major Hutchings’s home in Cornwall. He is in extremely bad health. He is arrested in a pretty high-handed manner, taken to Northern Ireland for four days’ questioning and then charged with attempted murder. The case is ongoing.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Does he agree these that historical allegations cases against veterans, particularly from the troubles in Northern Ireland, and particularly that of Dennis Hutchings, give little confidence to our school and university leavers when they think about a career in the armed services?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I do not think that any other country in the world would treat its veterans in this way. It is a straightforward breach of the armed forces covenant and is bound to have an impact on morale and, as he points out, on recruitment.
We have heard a number of very encouraging quotes from the Prime Minister and other Ministers. In 2017 the Prime Minister said that,
“we will never again in any future conflict let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave, the men and women of our Armed Forces.”
Does my hon. Friend believe, as I do, that if a statute of limitations is introduced, it should cover all theatres, so that veterans who have served honourably in Iraq and Afghanistan—even those who have faced disciplinary action but been cleared of any charge or wrongdoing—can get on with their lives? Also, does he know anything about the case of Major Robert Campbell, which is an exemplar of the bad justice meted out by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team? Does he agree that a statute of limitations should not be limited to Northern Ireland?
I shall come on to the statute of limitations point in a moment—I shall close my remarks shortly—but my hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point.
As we know, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon) took action when he was Secretary of State for Defence. He wound up the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, which had cost roughly £40 million, but that has not solved the problem. Yesterday I saw that Leigh Day is looking at up to 200 cases involving Iraqi veterans. Indeed, any solicitor anywhere can raise a case against a veteran if they feel like doing so and feel there is enough evidence. This problem will simply not go away.
I believe very strongly that the Ministry of Defence and the Government have that duty of care that I mentioned earlier. They have to draw a line under this situation. The only way I see for us to do so is to deal with all veterans on an equal basis across the UK, across all campaigns and across all theatres. There should be a statute of limitations on that basis, with an override whereby compelling new evidence that became available could be looked at; but otherwise, after five or 10 years or some clear limit—the Armed Forces (Statute of Limitations) Bill, a private Member’s Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), mentions 10 years—those veterans could at least get on and enjoy the rest of their lives.
In conclusion, I am giving the Minister a way forward. If we do not take that way forward, I think we will have really serious problems. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in her consultation, has made it clear that she will not consider a statute of limitations in the context of Northern Ireland. Therefore, let us have a statute of limitations covering the whole of the UK.
I have given the Minister a way forward but, as I said, our Northern Ireland veterans were sent there when they were young men and women, and they are now a good deal older than most of us. They risked everything. Many of their friends were killed; many were injured. Many suffered the most appalling mental illnesses. What the Government, and this Department in particular, owe to them now is no ordinary duty of care. It is something much more fundamental and profound. In some ways, the duty of care that we owe to current servicemen and women is perhaps more sacred than the duty of care we owe to people who fight in a world war, because the people who fought in Northern Ireland, or who went to various theatres such as Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, had a choice. They could, like Dennis Hutchings, have gone into the Army and risked their lives, or they could have had the easy way out—an easy life in civvy street. They could have had a very different life. But they did not. They risked their lives.
They are not asking for a great deal. They are not asking for an increase in their pension, or for any monetary handouts or further recognition. All they are asking for is not to be betrayed by the Government who they put their lives at risk for.
I thank my hon. Friend for obtaining the debate. Only last year I met a constituent who is, sadly, fearful of a knock on the door, or a letter, calling him to court. He served his country and had been retired for nearly 30 years. He put his life on the line for his country; he had taken lives for his country, yet he now feels that his country is not supporting him. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is not right at all?
I am grateful for that intervention.
I shall now conclude. The point is that these veterans are not asking for a great deal; they are simply making a request of this Government of all Governments—a Conservative Government who, at every possible opportunity, stand up and say that they support veterans. I have given the Minister and the Government a way forward. I hope that they will take it. I hope that all these veterans can then get on with the rest of their lives. They deserve a retirement free of the fear of a knock at the door.
I shall intervene once, as I know that many Members want to speak, but I need to speak up on behalf of a sergeant-major who served 22 years, including in Aden, Cyprus and Northern Ireland. He sent me an email today in which he said:
“From my side of the fence, it is fair to say that ex-service personnel feel betrayed beyond belief by the fact that the Government has not only failed to stamp this out immediately but has actually pursued the policy of opening even more doors for those who would wish to investigate incidents so that they can lay some form of blame on those who were, quite simply, carrying out orders.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that what is happening is completely wrong?
I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) on bringing the matter forward.
Increasingly, what is to all intents and purposes a private vendetta against the security forces is becoming a witch hunt funded by the public purse, at massive emotional and physical cost. What a world we now live in—while someone like Gerry Adams is taking a legal case attempting to overturn his conviction, the Democratic Unionist party will stand by the men and women in question as individuals who have been attacked merely because they dared to wear a British uniform in Northern Ireland. I declare an interest as one of those who served in the Army and was privileged to wear that uniform.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, if the country and Parliament put our young men and women in an incredibly dangerous position and, as part of their operational duties, they must make very difficult operational decisions, sometimes with tragic outcomes, it is appalling that they should then be subject to the full rigour of the criminal law, instead of the events being looked at in the light of the context in which they happened?
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend.
General Lord Dannatt, the former Chief of the General Staff, said this week:
“There should be no obligation on soldiers to co-operate because they have previously given evidence on the assurance of no further action being taken when this has proved a false promise.
I think this is an extremely unwelcome, worrying move. I served in Belfast in 1971 and had 25 to 35-year-old soldiers in my platoon who would now be in their 70s and 80s. Asking them to recall shootings from back then is outrageous.”
Hear, hear, I say.
I ask Members to picture a 75-year-old gentleman who served his days in Northern Ireland. He lost his friends and saw the unthinkable. Meanwhile, those who literally know where the bodies are buried are the ones pulling the strings, involving themselves in political life and pointing the finger at men and women whom they hate with a passion, as they are British. The man who murdered Ulster Defence Regiment soldier Lexie Cummings in Strabane walked freely around his home town wearing a mayor’s chain. Yet a 75-year-old whose only crime was to decide to serve Queen and country is being interrogated. Every single person who voted no to the Belfast agreement on the principle that it was unfair that those convicted of murder were released are now seeing those murderers with a vendetta being validated and having precious funding thrown at them, to seek the prosecution of soldiers. Those who honey-trapped three young soldiers and those who dragged soldiers out of a car and literally beat them to death have the so-called high moral ground about what happened some 40 years ago.
This witch hunt must not be tolerated. The Democratic Unionist party stands for our innocent armed forces and will continue to oppose every media post, newspaper article and motion that seeks to paint the troubles as a freedom fight. It was no freedom fight; it was terrorism no more shocking than 9/11 or the 7/7 attacks. IRA terrorism is no different from ISIS terrorism. In the same way that I stand with our current personnel, I stand with our veterans. I will defend them in this place against the hatred until the very last breath in my body.
In addition to the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), I would like to make just three points. First, an amnesty involves difficult issues. It is right that they should be debated here. If there is a line to be drawn, when exactly in time should we draw it? How do we properly distinguish between those who were in the service of the state and those who were trying to undermine the state? That should be debated not only here but in the province. That is why I wanted this issue included in the consultation paper, and I am very disappointed that it has not been.
Secondly, as my hon. Friend said, we should not reopen cases that have not only been investigated previously, but where the suspects have been told that the case has been concluded and that the investigation is over. It is morally wrong that people should have these cases reopened all over again. Thirdly, a number of the potential suspects and interviewees are elderly. They are fearful. They need and deserve the full support not just of the Ministry but of the chain of command. These were people doing their duty: carrying out the orders of others and the guidance that had been given to them by their superior officers. They deserve the full legal, financial and moral support of the current Army chain of command.
The Government will maintain that they have no choice but to follow the rule of law with regard to prosecuting historic allegations against veteran soldiers who fought in Northern Ireland. What total twaddle! If so, which rule of law was followed when PIRA terrorists who killed so many people were released, pardoned and given promises that they would not be further prosecuted after the Good Friday agreement and other deals? I afraid I am coming to the view that the Government are resorting to craven appeasement of Sinn Féin. They are scapegoating a few old soldiers. Is that a price worth paying? My God, it is not. How can our Government mollify Sinn Féin using old men who ran huge risks for all of us, as collateral? Have we lost our sense of decency?
Not one member of the Cabinet has seen operational service for their country. Not one of them has had to make a split-second decision to open fire when his or her life was threatened, as so many soldiers did. May I mention that the Minister for the Armed Forces, the right hon. and gallant Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), is not a member of the Cabinet—yet?
This seemingly vindictive persecution of veteran soldiers has gone unresolved for too long. Successive Governments’ lack of leadership on the matter is appalling. I am very angry about the betrayal of our service personnel. This matter is fixable. I call on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State for Defence, the Secretary of State for Justice and, indeed, the whole Cabinet and the Prime Minister—because we have collective Cabinet responsibility—to grip this and sort it out.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) on securing the debate.
I served in Northern Ireland at the end of Operation Banner, so I know very well just how politically sensitive these issues are out there. However, the current situation, with ex-soldiers still under investigation, cannot endure. The equivalency being made between the service of members of the British armed forces and terrorists is immoral, and public outrage is entirely understandable.
That may be the case. I will talk about something slightly different in the short time I have available, drawing on my own experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than getting into the intricacies of Northern Irish politics.
I served in Afghanistan twice, as a platoon commander and then, latterly, as the adjutant of 2 Rifles in 2009, with a tour to Iraq in between. As a platoon commander, I was only too aware that I was training my soldiers to go out on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, to remove the safety catch and open fire, acting entirely on instinct in the heat of the moment, drawing on everything they had learned in their pre-deployment training and everything they had seen on the tour hitherto. We have to give soldiers the confidence that, on the rare occasions on which they take those decisions—on operations in hugely dangerous situations—and get them wrong, the system will back them up and will agree that they followed the rules of engagement, and that, once all the investigations in theatre are complete, that is them done.
When I was the adjutant of 2 Rifles in Sangin in 2009, arguably on the most kinetic of the Operation Herrick tours, there were lots. Every day I would start shooting incident reports and other sorts of incident report that would go on up to the Herrick taskforce at brigade and would be immediately looked over by lawyers and the Royal Military Police. That process was robust, and when there was any doubt in investigators’ minds, the investigation continued beyond the brigade, up to division, and was looked at thoroughly.
Soldiers have to know that that process is complete, and that when it is done the nation will stand behind them. Otherwise, in that split second when the safety catch has to be removed and lethal force has to be applied, they will hesitate. That could cost them their life.
I will briefly make three principal points. First, without the bravery and sacrifice of British troops—supported by the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, GC—there would never have been a peace process in Northern Ireland.
The right hon. Gentleman is a most distinguished Minister, and I respect him for that. He talks about bravery and sacrifice. He should also refer to discipline. I have never met anyone in the armed forces who ever felt that every single soldier, sailor and airman always acted with total and complete probity. There are some people who breach the code. Does he honestly think that an amnesty, which would exclude every single person, should be allowed? Should he not listen to the words of David Cameron following the Saville report, maybe study Ballymurphy and have a look at some of the incidents that quite clearly have to be investigated? By all means do not penalise the elderly, but also do not try to put everybody into the same category.
All these cases were investigated at the time. That is exactly the point. They have already been looked into, and the people concerned have already been cleared.
Tony Blair said, “This is not a time for clichés, but the hand of history is upon us”. Well, that hand of history, if it were there, was only there because of the tremendous bravery and sacrifice of all those British Army personnel on Operation Banner for three decades in the run-up to 1998.
I am afraid I will not.
Secondly, the Government consultation was originally going to include an option for a statute of limitations, but that was pulled at the eleventh hour. Why? Was it because of political pressure from Sinn Féin? Why did the Northern Ireland Office suddenly buckle and take that out of the consultation, so that it was no longer a formal option to be considered?
Thirdly, we all want to see the power-sharing Executive restored in Northern Ireland, but not at any price. There will be no equivalence in this system. There is no point in saying, “Oh, but the terrorists will be investigated as well,” because they have been given letters of comfort by Blair—they are off the hook. But the letters received by British servicemen who were investigated and told they were in the clear do not count, do they? They are still being investigated by the PSNI. We saw what a farce the Iraq Historic Allegations Team was. It was so bad that it had to be closed down by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon) when he was Defence Secretary.
The proposals from the NIO are morally disgraceful. I have never been so annoyed with my own Government. We need a statute of limitations for Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, and we need it soon.
I am delighted to see my right hon. Friend the Minister here—as a Defence Minister, he can reflect this issue right across the Government. As a veteran of Operation Banner who has been involved in this issue for many years, I am angry. We want to hold the NIO to account. I strongly believe that there is a cadre of officials in that Department who can think up a thousand reasons why they should not do something. Just occasionally, they should be encouraged to think about how they can solve a problem that is an affront to every decent person in this country.
I have a solution, which builds on what my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) proposed. It will come before the House on 15 June. Okay, it is a ten-minute rule Bill and it has got to the bottom of the list—we all know how this place works—but the Government should pick it up and run with it. I suggest that there should be a 10-year statute of limitations for all servicemen who serve on operations. I agree entirely that there can be overrides and caveats, and I am happy to talk about the time—I am happy to talk about anything—but we must get the principle in law so that the young men and women currently training with my son in the British Army know that the system in this country will stand by them when they make the awful decision to take somebody’s life, under all the constraints we impose on them.
We are in a situation in which a 78-year-old man with kidney failure—a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray)—is being taken to court. What other country would do that? Why are we so shaming? I know that we have a devolved justice system in Northern Ireland, and that the people who take that case forward will have to be held to account for that, but we have reached the point where we as a society must ask, “Is it right to take an old man who is in poor health away from his family and put him through this?”
I believe that we have a solution. I am desperately keen that we should work constructively with all elements of the Government. If we start from the basis that it is all too difficult, nothing will happen, but we have to find solutions.
I will start by reading a message from another of my constituents, a Mr Dennis Blagdon. He wrote to me this weekend:
“I feel ashamed to be British that the government would let this serious lack of justice happen”
to Dennis Hutchings. Mr Blagdon continued:
“He is a man who is ill, who is being hounded for a job which he was employed by the government at the time to do. It was war.”
We cannot put it any simpler than that. Northern Ireland was war. Mr Blagdon added that,
“a shot was fired which, unfortunately, killed a person. TO THIS DAY, NO ONE KNOWS WHO FIRED THAT FATEFUL SHOT. Why should this poor man, who is dying, be held responsible? This guy is a lovely man, who I have met on many occasions. Please just let him live his last days in peace.”
My hon. Friend is quite right.
I will not take much time to repeat what has already been said, but the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland was originally formed from the Northern Ireland Office and the Ministry of Justice. We do not have an Executive in Northern Ireland at the moment. I am calling on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to address this immediately by announcing the consultation paper. As far as I am concerned, my constituent, Dennis Hutchings, has suffered enough. I have been informed that he has been cleared twice and, to be honest, the evidence has since been destroyed—evidence that he could have used in his defence. I agree with the Government when they say that the current process is flawed, and I call on them to do something about it and let Dennis Hutchings, my constituent, go free now. He is a hero who did his job. Let him go free.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) for securing this important debate. I will speak very briefly.
The issue is very pertinent to my constituency. Generations of Aldershot soldiers served in the Province and still live in and around the Aldershot area and in the borough of Rushmoor. The savagery and brutality of the troubles were brought home to Aldershot in February 1972 when, through an IRA atrocity, a bomb was exploded outside the headquarters of 16th Parachute Brigade. Seven civilian staff were killed and 19 were wounded. The treatment of Dennis Hutchings has aroused some very strong feelings in and around my constituency. I share that sense of moral outrage. I clearly put on the record my support for the statute of limitations proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), and I would like the Ministry of Defence to legislate for that, possibly for 10 years, to cover veterans.
It is important to point out that soldiers do not expect to be above the law. Any legislation would cover those who had already been investigated, just as Dennis Hutchings has been investigated. They expect only natural justice, and that is what we should seek to provide for them.
It is important that the statute covers theatres other than Northern Ireland. Several veterans have been treated very badly in their experience of dealing with the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, and I draw attention to Major Robert Campbell, who has experienced eight different investigations. He has been cleared of wrongdoing and has been abysmally treated by the IHAT process. Although IHAT has been closed down, the danger is that its legacy unit, the Iraq fatality investigations unit, is still prosecuting individuals. That is why those individuals need to be covered by a possible statute of limitations.
The contract between the military and the Government depends on trust. The Government have to deliver on that. That is what Dennis Hutchings, Major Robert Campbell and the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan deserve, and it is what we in our community and in our society should demand. We should demand natural justice for our veterans.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I rise to speak with a great deal of humility, having heard the distinguished speakers who have gone before me, who have served and who have great experience in such matters. I rise only because I would like to add something from a slightly different perspective. I have not served; I am a lawyer and I approach the debate from a legal perspective, because there is a legal as well as a moral element to it.
By nature, I am very cautious about the increasing role of law in warfare, simply because the mindset of a lawyer is so different from that of a soldier, by necessity. Lawyers are cautious and risk-averse. They explore every option. That avenue simply is not available in circumstances such as those described by my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey). The military are all about the can-do attitude that was described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). That is even more the case when we look at cases in retrospect.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) has just said, nobody is suggesting that the military should be able to act with impunity; all that is expected is natural justice and fairness. If laws of war or engagement are broken, of course they should be held to account, but not years and years after the event. The spectacle of repeated historical allegations is absolutely deplorable, and set against a set of standards that were often simply not available at the time. IHAT is a classic example of that, and Northern Ireland much more recently.
I would like to add one thought on a limitation Act, from a civil law perspective. I used to practise in an area of industrial disease, representing people who had suffered from horrible illnesses such as mesothelioma. In those circumstances there is a statute of limitations—the Limitation Act 1980—so after a certain amount of time companies can expect not to be pursued. There are good reasons for that: memories fade, documents get lost, standards change, and knowledge and attitudes change. Therefore, after a reasonable amount of time, they have a reasonable expectation that they will not continue to be pursued.
Here there is a clear imbalance. For example, the IRA did not keep records, while the British Army does. In civil law we would look at things very differently. I entirely support the suggestion for a statute of limitations simply because we have a similar thing in civil law. We are currently providing assistance and protection to historical industrial companies that are facing only civil claims and not soldiers, who may face serious matters that would turn their lives upside down.
Our veterans should be entitled to know that when they serve, they can go home with gratitude and not have to look over their shoulders for the rest of their lives. The Government should be clear. The public view the spectacle of Britain turning on its own with absolute disgust. We must bring peace to veterans who have worked so hard to bring peace to us.
Thank you for including me in the debate, Mr Streeter. All the contributions have been incredibly thoughtful, not least that from the leader of the debate, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham). There are two aspects to this: can it be done, and should it be done? The lawyers are debating whether it can be done, but those who focus on the negativity of one legal academic who gave evidence to the Defence Committee and on his aspiration that it should apply to terrorists and those who engage in paramilitarism in Northern Ireland are wrong. It can be done. Much more thoughtful legal evidence was given to the Defence Committee as part of the report we prepared seeking a statute of limitations. There has not been enough focus on that.
There has been focus on the rule of law. We set the rule of law in this country. Releasing prisoners in 1998 or in 2000 in Northern Ireland was anathema to at least the 30% of the population who voted against the Belfast agreement, but it was passed in this House and it became the rule of law. When Tony Blair signed comfort letters secretly and quietly and told individual IRA paramilitaries that they would not be pursued for the crimes they committed in this country against this state, that was notionally against the rule of law, but he did it.
There were no hang-ups in the Northern Ireland Office about the on-the-runs procedure. What happened to John Downey, the person responsible for the Hyde Park bombing here in London? He went to court and the prosecution stalled on the basis of an on-the-runs letter. Therefore, when we hear about the rule of law and practical implications, we should remember that we are sovereign in this country—we set the rule of law and the tone—and having appraised ourselves of the moral implications and the moral imperative that, after 20 years of appeasing those involved in paramilitarism and trying to destroy this country, there is a greater prize in protecting those who serve to defend the principles of this country, it can be done, and it should be done.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) on bringing forward the debate. All of us in the Chamber are proud of our armed forces. Our veterans are an asset to our society, deserving of our thanks, respect and support. We support them because we are proud of them, because we know they have been trained to the highest standards and conduct themselves with the utmost integrity and because they operate to bring peace to areas of conflict.
That confidence in the behaviour of our military personnel enables them to continue carrying out their duties with full public support in every theatre of war. However, when the actions of individuals call into question the integrity of our armed forces, we must address that. That is not to say we should not protect ex-service personnel from bogus legacy cases. Members and former members of our armed forces must be treated fairly when accusations of wrongdoing are made. We know about the huge backlog of cases in the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, which means that serving members and former personnel face extended periods of uncertainty over accusations that have been made. The case of Major Robert Campbell has been mentioned today, and I think we would all agree that that is not acceptable.
We must also have confidence in the institutions of the police and judiciary in Northern Ireland to serve the people. Responsibility for policing and justice matters in Northern Ireland is devolved and should be respected as such. The PSNI legacy investigations branch should be given adequate resources for such investigations so that they are not prolonged unnecessarily. In the north of Ireland, we know that few families escaped the suffering and the violence.
This debate is timely, given the actions we saw yesterday from the Israeli military. The callous manner in which civilians, including children, were mowed down, demonstrated to the world a military not operating in a manner that we would consider exemplary, but we cannot brush over our own past. Events such as the Ballymurphy massacre, into which an inquest is currently taking place, or the Bloody Sunday murders, are a stain.
I am sure that the hon. Lady will want to clarify that. I am sure she is not, but she seems to be saying that whatever happened on the border of Gaza yesterday has perhaps some equivalency with the behaviour of the British armed forces during their service in Northern Ireland, Iraq or Afghanistan.
That is absolutely not what I said. I said that that was a military behaving in a manner that was not exemplary.
We know there were terrorists on both sides in Northern Ireland, but the idea that people can murder with impunity cannot be tolerated. Those carrying out the atrocities we are talking about today were not terrorists. They were sent to Northern Ireland to keep the peace, not to enflame an already volatile situation. We expect the highest standards from our armed forces and that requires them to operate within, not outwith, the rule of law. The actions of a few individual members of the armed forces during those events brought them down to the level of the terrorists. That is something that should cause us all shame.
Our service personnel should rightly be held to the highest standards of behaviour, but they should also be supported fully by the Ministry of Defence when allegations are made. That certainly means being offered proper legal representation and support. Our armed forces have our gratitude for the difficult work they do on our behalf, in defending us and our values, sometimes in traumatic and highly stressful situations. The hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey) talked of his own experience. He described the very best practice, where he was aware of what was going on.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I will confine my remarks to Northern Ireland, as the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) did. I congratulate him on securing this extremely important debate. As a young man, I well remember the horrific reports on the television about the troubles in Northern Ireland. At the height of the troubles, there were more than 27,000 military personnel, in more than 100 locations. They were there as part of Operation Banner, the longest continuous campaign in the history of the British Army. Let me place on record my appreciation and my highest possible regard for the professionalism and the commitment of our armed forces personnel in the most difficult of conflicts.
I think the point that the hon. Gentleman is emphasising is that so many armed service personnel in Northern Ireland acted to the highest standards and showed massive restraint in the face of being terrorised, whether at Warrenpoint, Ballykelly or Narrow Water. We should look up to our soldiers and be extremely proud of the way in which they conducted themselves over decades of service.
The hon. Gentleman is obviously better aware of the situation in Northern Ireland than just about any Member here. I certainly concur with his remarks, and I hold in the highest possible esteem, as I said, the personnel of our armed forces and the commitment they showed.
There were 3,260 deaths during the troubles. In 2006, the then Government established the Historical Enquiries Team to examine all deaths attributable to the security situation. In September 2014, the Historical Enquiries Team was disbanded, and in its place PSNI set up the legacy investigations branch. As we are only too aware, there have been significant criticisms of the process by which legacy investigations are currently undertaken. The Prime Minister’s comments last week are a clear indication of that.
However, it is worth noting that it has been argued that PSNI’s statistics indicate that more of its legacy resources are deployed investigating former paramilitaries, and the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland argues that more effort has gone into investigating former republican and loyalist paramilitaries. There are clearly differences of opinion on this, but we should have respect for all opinions that have been expressed on this very emotive issue.
Addressing legacy issues was a key part of the Stormont House agreement of December 2014. It was agreed that principles including the promotion of reconciliation and the rule of law should be upheld, that the suffering of victims and survivors should be acknowledged and addressed, and that there should be a facilitation of the pursuit of justice and information recovery. It was also argued that human rights should be respected, and that all investigations should be balanced, proportionate, transparent, fair and equitable. To that end, the agreement set out the establishment of a new, independent Historical Investigations Unit. I understand that the Government have now produced a consultation document, and that there will soon be a public consultation exercise on the new mechanisms for handling outstanding legacy issues.
The Defence Committee argued in its April 2017 report that there should be a statute of limitations protecting both former members of the security forces and paramilitaries. It was recognised that such a statute had to be equally applicable to all those involved in the conflict, and that there ought to be a truth-recovery process. That was the argument put forward.
At the end of last year, the British Government indicated that a statute of limitations might be included in the consultation. I understand from press reports that that will not now be the case. Personally, I am not persuaded that such a statute is the best way forward. However, I would like to know from the Minister why the Government have seen fit to exclude the suggestion from the public consultation. While I realise that the consultation will be in the hands of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Government operate on a collective basis, and I would like to know who, and what organisations and bodies, will be consulted. Will the views of the veterans’ organisations be sought? I certainly hope that that will be the case.
Finally, I emphasise the need for progress to be made in this difficult area on the basis of consensus. Only by working together, in a spirit of reconciliation and co-operation, will we ensure that Northern Ireland can enjoy a lasting peace.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) on securing the debate. I had the opportunity as recently as January to make a speech on this matter. That another debate has been secured so soon speaks volumes about the commitment of the House to the welfare of both serving and former members of our armed forces. I declare my interest as a serving member of the Army Reserve.
I am troubled that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) feels that the Government are simply not interested in our veterans. He is probably right that there is no serving Cabinet Minister who has seen operational service—there is, of course, one who serves in the Royal Naval Reserve. Although my own very modest experiences in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan pale into insignificance compared with those of many who served in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, several Ministers have served. I assure my hon. Friend that many of us in Government have our veterans’ interests at the forefront of our minds and are determined to do what we can to support them. I will move on in a moment to underline some of the things that the MOD is doing to support our veterans.
I am second to none in my admiration for our armed forces. They do an exceptionally difficult job in the most challenging circumstances, and we rightly hold them to the highest standards. However, although the overwhelming majority of service personnel conduct themselves professionally and in accordance with legal obligations, a few do not. In such circumstances, domestic and international law requires us to investigate serious allegations, and it is right that we do. We live in a democracy that values the rule of law, and no one, including those in the armed forces, should be above the law. However, let me be clear that that does not mean we should accept lengthy investigations and reinvestigations many years after the event.
Let me turn first to Northern Ireland. It is due only to the courageous efforts of our security forces that we have the relative peace and stability that Northern Ireland enjoys today. The Government are sincere and unstinting in their gratitude to all those who served throughout the long years of the troubles, many hundreds of whom paid a very high price for doing so. We will always salute the heroism and courage they displayed in upholding democracy and the rule of law in Northern Ireland, and we will not tolerate the rewriting of Northern Ireland’s history by those who wish to legitimise the actions of terrorists who sought to kill and destroy.
Historical investigations in Northern Ireland currently involve numerous inquests and investigations into the small minority of deaths attributed to the state. Meanwhile, many terrorist murders go uninvestigated. All those involved, not least the victims and survivors of terrorism, along with former members of the security services, deserve a better approach than the current flawed system, which is not working well for anyone. The Government are committed to putting this unacceptable situation right.
The Government believe that the institutions proposed in the 2014 Stormont House agreement are the best way to ensure a fair, balanced and, crucially, proportionate approach to addressing the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. On Friday the Government published a consultation and draft Bill that set out in detail how the Stormont House agreement institutions could be implemented.
The key institution in the context of today’s debate is the proposed historic investigations unit, or HIU. The HIU would be responsible for completing outstanding investigations into troubles-related deaths within five years. Critically, that would include around 700 murders by terrorists that are not currently being investigated. In addition, the HIU would be required to act in a manner that is fair, impartial, proportionate, effective, efficient and designed to secure public confidence.
My hon. Friend is aware that that is an ongoing process. She and I met, at her request, the last time we had such a debate to discuss her constituent in detail, and the ongoing support that he is receiving from the Ministry of Defence.
In delivering our manifesto commitment to consult on how the Stormont House agreement could be implemented, the Government are clear that they will not take forward any measure that could have the effect of targeting, discriminating against or otherwise putting at a disadvantage our veterans. As part of that commitment, the Defence Secretary has asked the Defence Committee to play a role in scrutinising the detail that has been proposed. In particular, he has asked the Committee for its views on whether what has been put forward will meet the Government’s aim that any future investigations will be conducted in a way that is balanced, proportionate, transparent, fair and equitable, with no prospect that veterans will be targeted or discriminated against.
Is the Minister aware that the issue emerged in parallel with and subsequent to the Stormont House agreement through a decision by the chief constable to refer all state-related deaths to the case load of PSNI’s legacy unit, ergo it will go into the historical investigations unit? This is a new and emerging issue since the discussions on the Stormont House agreement.
Of course, there are a number of emerging issues, and this is proving to be one of the difficulties in trying to get consensus on how we move forward. Members will also be aware of last year’s Defence Committee report recommending that a statute of limitations covering all troubles-related deaths involving the armed forces should be established, alongside a non-criminal mechanism for ascertaining the facts surrounding the deaths. That report, and indeed today’s debate, demonstrate that there is support for an alternative approach to dealing with the legacy of the past.
In the limited time I have, let me say that Members do not have to take the Government’s word on this. I am sorry that the Chair of the Defence Committee is not here, but I encourage all Members to look at that report and the legal evidence given to it over the challenges—that is probably the best way of describing them—about moving forward under the statute of limitations approach. That said, the whole purpose of the consultation is to try to move the issue forward. There is an open question as to how we move forward, and the suggestion of the hon. Member for North West Norfolk is a perfectly reasonable one to be put forward into the consultation. As we have just launched a consultation, it would be premature for me to commit to what that way forward will be. That is why I encourage everybody, particularly veterans and Members, to contribute to that consultation so that we can attempt to find a sensible way forward.
The consultation, as published, is specific to Northern Ireland. However, this is a wider issue that impacts operations in other theatres. I take this opportunity, in the 20 seconds I have left, to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), who did so much in his tenure as the Secretary of State for Defence to move these issues forward—not least when it comes to other theatres—by closing down IHAT from 30 June last year.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).