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Veterans and Soldiers: Statute of Limitations

Volume 643: debated on Monday 25 June 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Kelly Tolhurst.)

Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), I remind those speaking, or hoping to intervene in the debate, that, in line with the sub judice resolution agreed by the House, no reference may be made to cases that are active before the courts.

I rise to call for legislation to bring forward a statute of limitations to protect soldiers and veterans, in the knowledge that today is the first day of Armed Forces Week. This is a week in which we have an opportunity to celebrate the contribution that our armed forces make to all aspects of our society and our national security, but also to express our collective gratitude to the armed services. This gratitude is universally felt throughout our society, and I know that it is strongly felt in this Chamber. It is for that reason that, when we see instances of soldiers and veterans being mistreated by legal process, we cannot help feeling—as they do—a strong sense of betrayal.

Speaking as someone who spent three years on operations in Northern Ireland, and on behalf of the men and women who served there, may I just say that it is about time that our Government sorted this matter out?

I am very grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for his intervention. More than anyone else in this Chamber, he knows what it means to serve.

Like my hon. Friends the Members for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) and for Witney (Robert Courts), I have brought forward a public petition calling for a statute of limitations, and I have been amazed by the response. Hundreds of my constituents and members of the general public have signed the petition on a daily basis.

I congratulate the hon. and gallant Gentleman on the public support he has received in his constituency and on the turnout here this evening, which is testament to the strength of feeling in this Parliament, across the Chamber and across colleagues. I commend him for his work and support him in his efforts. The Democratic Unionist party supports him and we will work together to bring this forward.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

When we see instances such as Dennis Hutchings—a man in his late 70s who served in Northern Ireland in the 1970s—being rearrested for an allegation for which he has previously been cleared of any wrongdoing on two separate occasions, we can see that there is clearly no public interest and that this is palpably politically motivated. The distressing point is that this situation is not just a few old men and a few last cases; there are a further 278 cases similar to that of Dennis Hutchings on the books of the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Like others, I served in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, and I know of many cases that could possibly be dragged forward and people who are waiting for that knock on the door. It is invidious. I did not go there because I wanted to. Like my colleagues, I went there because we were ordered to; we were there to protect the civilians from all the terrorism. Does he not think that this is poor reward for the hard work and dedication of the armed forces?

The Belfast agreement released men and women from prison—from the possibility of prison—into political life. It was straightforward for them. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it should be straightforward for our armed forces, who were not terrorists but were following orders just as our soldiers still do throughout the globe? Any soldier with clean hands certainly deserves protection. Those terrorists with blood on their hands got a fresh start in life and appear to be attempting to call the shots.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

This is broader than only Northern Ireland. The House will be aware of the scandalous saga of legal pursuit in recent years of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, 3,500 cases were brought before the Iraq Historic Allegations Team at a cost of £60 million to the taxpayer, resulting in no prosecutions. All those allegations were spurious. A case in point is the experience of Major Bob Campbell, who now faces his eighth investigation, despite having been cleared of any wrongdoing on numerous occasions.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that this is a matter not just for veterans, for whom we rightly have concern, but for our armed forces of today and in the future? The impact that this could have, and is having, on recruitment and retention is palpable, as we know from those we know who are serving.

Absolutely. This is not a matter of history: it is a matter of the here and now and of future deployments.

I have two simple proposals. The first is that the Ministry of Defence legislate for a statute of limitations, perhaps for 10 years, meaning that after 10 years, unless there is significant new evidence, no case can be brought against a veteran or soldier. Soldiers and veterans do not wish or seek to be above the law—they just seek natural justice. We must allow veterans to get on with their lives without the constant fear of that knock on the door and legal pursuit.

My second proposal is that we return our armed forces to the legal jurisdiction of the law of armed conflict and the Geneva convention. The intrusion of the European convention on human rights, which was taken into British domestic law in the form of the Human Rights Act 1998, set the scene for the legal scandal that was IHAT in the case of Iraq, and Op Northmoor in the case of Afghanistan. Although the Government should be commended for the way that they closed IHAT, hundreds of cases of a similar nature remain outstanding, with private law firms, that may be brought in the near future. IHAT will happen again unless we in this place change the legal jurisdiction of our armed forces.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on this very important Adjournment debate. Does he agree that both the Vienna convention and the Geneva convention need the closest study and early reform because they are no longer up to date?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing this debate. A previous British Government were able to find a legal mechanism to help a specific group of people called the on-the-runs, over 130 of them, who were all in different jurisdictions—the Republic of Ireland, Belgium and the United States—and got “get out of jail free” cards. Surely there must be some way in which Her Majesty’s Government can protect those who are there to serve our nation.

I am grateful for that intervention. I agree that the whole resolve of the Ministry of Defence and the legal capability of the Government must be brought to bear to find a legally viable route towards this, because it is, frankly, an issue of national security.

I commend my hon. Friend and neighbour for securing this debate. Does he agree that ultimately there is a simple but important contract that must be honoured, which is that our servicemen and women, whether today or in years gone by, have served us and we should stand by them?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on this important debate. Having spent my young years in Northern Ireland, I remember how many times it was British armed forces who kept civilians safe. I am delighted to see so many Members here tonight. I do not want to turn this into a political issue, but is it not sad that half the Chamber is empty?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I certainly agree.

What I am suggesting is not a new idea. As many hon. Members will know, the Conservative party manifesto of 2017 proposed exactly the same thing. On page 41, our manifesto stated:

“We will protect our brave armed forces personnel from persistent legal claims, which distress those who risk our lives for us, cost the taxpayer millions, and undermine the armed forces in the service they give. Under a Conservative government, British troops will in future be subject to the Law of Armed Conflict, which includes the Geneva Convention and UK Service Law, not the European Court of Human Rights.”

We must deliver what we promised. This is a matter of individual justice, but it is also a matter of national security. I regard it as a strategic necessity. How on earth can we deploy military force abroad with resolve if we are in any way doubtful, thinking that the Government may subsequently be challenged legally and that individuals serving on those operations may face legal pursuit?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is not just about recruitment and retention, as important as those are. It is about the confidence to pull the trigger and apply lethal force, using one’s judgment, and having the confidence that the Government will not come after people years later. It is about current operational capability.

I agree entirely with my hon. and gallant Friend. This is a strategic necessity, and it guards against the wholesale enfeeblement of our capacity to deploy military power abroad and to execute with resolve our foreign policy and our security policy.

I seek humbly from the Minister two things: first, confirmation that urgent action will be taken by the Ministry of Defence on bringing forward a statute of limitations; and secondly, confirmation that the Government will fulfil their manifesto pledge and ensure that, when troops deploy abroad on combat operations in the future, they come under the law of armed conflict and the Geneva convention.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. I note that, by rough count, there are some 50 Members in the Chamber this evening, which shows the strength of feeling on this issue. I am also pleased to see the Secretary of State for Defence in his place on the Front Bench.

The Defence Committee, on which my hon. Friend and I both serve, has now agreed to look into this complex issue. If the Committee can find a way through this legal minefield, does my hon. Friend agree that Ministers—bearing in mind the manifesto commitment—would be morally obliged to take notice and act on it?

I commend my right hon. Friend for his knowledge of the subject and agree entirely with his point. We must show resolve, and the Ministry of Defence must deploy its whole effort to find a legally viable path to fulfil our collective manifesto pledge.

In conclusion, I would like to reflect on the damaging impact that the issue has on the morale and trust of those who have served and continue to serve. I have had a lot of correspondence on this subject, as one would expect, because of the petition and this debate. I am alarmed by the number of conversations I have had that involve the use of the word “betrayal”, but what alarms me more is when senior non-commissioned officers and officers who have served dozens of years all around the world in the most intensive and brutal operational environments tell me, after a lifetime of service, that on no account will they let their children serve as they have done. That pains me deeply.

Fundamentally, this is a matter of trust. It is about the Government fulfilling their duty of care to their soldiers, and it is about us collectively repaying the trust our soldiers have in us.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing the debate. That these issues were last debated just a month ago in Westminster Hall demonstrates Parliament’s commitment to supporting members of our armed forces, both serving and retired.

The idea of a statute of limitations has recently drawn support from many in this place. My right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) has published a ten-minute rule Bill to provide for exactly that. Having been in the Chamber on that Friday when his Bill was before the House, may I recognise and pay tribute to the quiet and dignified protest of so many veterans out on Parliament Square? It would be wrong not to acknowledge that. Equally, I say to my right hon. Friend that while on that occasion—unfortunately, due to parliamentary constraints—we were unable to reach his Bill, I understand exactly why he chose, for technical reasons, to withdraw it to ensure that we can have a debate on it in due course.

So that there is clarity about what is meant by a statute of limitations in this context, let me set out briefly the key features of my right hon. Friend’s Bill—the Armed Forces (Statute of Limitations) Bill. The Bill would introduce a 10-year cut-off point after which prosecutions of members of the armed forces for the offences of murder, manslaughter or culpable homicide could not be brought. The cut-off point, or limitation period, would apply in circumstances in which the person suspected of the offence had been, at the time it was allegedly committed, engaged in armed conflict or in peacekeeping overseas. It would also apply if the alleged offence took place in the UK, providing that a previous investigation into the events in question had already taken place.

This debate is also timely because, as we have heard, last week the Defence Committee announced a new inquiry into just these issues. It is worth highlighting, because they are key in this debate, the questions that the Committee is seeking to address:

“What are the reasons for investigations into former service personnel?...

What difficulties do the UK’s international legal obligations pose for any attempt at protecting service personnel?

Can a Statute of Limitations, extended to all previous conflicts, be designed in such a way as to be consistent with these obligations?

What should be the cut-off date for the Statute of Limitations?”

These are very important questions. Aside from the question of whether a criminal limitation period is desirable in principle, those who support the idea must also engage with the complex practical reality of the legal framework within which our armed forces operate. That point was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois)

The Defence Committee heard evidence in its earlier inquiry that suggested that, in respect of Northern Ireland, any statute of limitations would need to apply to terrorist offences as well as to the armed forces if it were to be lawful under the European convention on human rights. The legal issues to be overcome by a more wide-ranging statute of limitations are more complex still. For example, what offences should be covered? How might it affect the possibility of investigations by the International Criminal Court? How might it be constructed in a way that is compatible with our obligations under the Geneva conventions and the ECHR? If it were to apply to service personnel operating in the UK, what activities would be covered? Should there be any exceptions to the limitation period, such as where new evidence becomes available after the cut-off point? I am really pleased that the Defence Committee will be looking at each of these issues—and more—in depth. The Government look forward to the Committee’s conclusions in due course, and I am confident that this will be a very valuable contribution to the debate.

The principal concerns that the idea of a statute of limitations seeks to address relate to historical investigations taking place in Northern Ireland, as well as to those in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would like to say something briefly about each of those issues. First, let me turn to Northern Ireland. It is only due to the courageous efforts of our security forces that we have the relative peace and stability that Northern Ireland enjoys today. This 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.

The Government understand the concerns that people have about the way in which the legacy matters are currently dealt with. Historical investigations in Northern Ireland currently include numerous inquests and investigations into the small minority of deaths attributable 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 right.

The Government propose that the institutions set out in the 2014 Stormont House agreement are the best way to ensure a fair, balanced and proportionate approach to addressing the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. That is why the Northern Ireland Office is consulting on the detail of how the Stormont House agreement institutions could be implemented. The institution most relevant to today’s debate is the Historical Investigations Unit. The HIU would be responsible for completing outstanding investigations into troubles-related deaths within five years. That would include about 700 deaths caused 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, and designed to secure the confidence of the public.

As we have heard, last year the Select Committee on Defence looked at Northern Ireland in particular and recommended the creation of a statute of limitations covering all troubles-related deaths involving the armed forces, alongside a non-criminal mechanism for ascertaining the facts surrounding those deaths. While the Committee’s report demonstrated that there was support for alternative ways of looking at the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland, we must acknowledge—this is my understanding —that none of the Northern Ireland parties felt this was an approach that they could consider.

I am glad that the Minister has paid attention to the previous report that we produced on Northern Ireland. I was even more glad that the official response to that report said that the consultation would include a section of alternative approaches that would consider a statute of limitations and a truth recovery mechanism. Unfortunately —and it seems to have happened with the change of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—that policy has been dropped. My impression, having spoken to ardent loyalists and ardent republicans, is that they are trapped by their rhetoric. They cannot say that they would go along with a statute of limitations, but in reality, if the Government took the lead, they would be able to live with it.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I will address that point if he will bear with me.

Because there are a range of opinions, as well as requesting contributions as to how the Stormont House institutions could be implemented, the Northern Ireland Office consultation includes an open question inviting wider views on alternative ways of addressing Northern Ireland’s past. That open question ensures that all those who believe in an alternative way forward will be given a full opportunity to express their views and put forward proposals. As I said in the Westminster Hall debate a few weeks ago, I hope that everyone who has contributed to the debate will find the time to respond to the consultation. I can reassure the House that the Government are committed to considering all contributions carefully before deciding next steps. In that consultation, it is in their response to the open question that hon. Members can express their views on the subject.

Given the time, I should like to move on briefly to Iraq, where the eye-watering number of allegations and the several forms of investigation have created the perception of a witch hunt against service personnel and veterans. While the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal’s decision to strike off Phil Shiner shows that many of these allegations were improperly sourced, and some media reports have suggested that many of the claims brought through Leigh Day may be exaggerated, we must not lose sight of the fact that some service personnel in Iraq acted improperly. The death of Baha Mousa, the severe ill-treatment of detainees at Camp Breadbasket, and a small number of other incidents cast a long shadow. It would be remiss of us not to treat all allegations seriously, and we should expect them to be investigated professionally, but no one wants to see prolonged or repeated investigations over many years into the same incident. The Iraq Historic Allegations Team closed on 30 June 2017. When it was established in 2010 it was conceived as a two-year investigation into about 100 allegations of ill-treatment of detainees, but subsequent court decisions here and in Strasbourg opened the floodgates to over 3,600 allegations of ill-treatment and unlawful killing. It was simply overwhelmed, and struggled to identify quickly the few serious allegations and to conclude those investigations promptly and effectively. The service police legacy investigations have fared much better, concluding 73% of their case load within the first nine months. The bulk of the SPLI’s work will be complete by the end of 2018.

On Afghanistan, the number of historical investigations arising from Afghanistan has been far lower. This is due partly to the much smaller number of claims brought by law firms, but also to the more proactive approach taken during operations. By establishing a detention oversight team, which interviewed detainees while in UK custody and following transfer into the Afghan criminal justice system, we were able to ensure that most allegations were identified and investigated at the time. As a result, the Royal Military Police’s Operation Northmoor has had a far smaller case load and has been able to progress its investigations more rapidly than the Iraq bodies. Operation Northmoor has completed over 90% of its investigations, and its case load will be substantially complete by the end of this year.

Today’s debate can have left nobody in any doubt as to the strength of feeling on this vital issue. Inevitably, it is enormously difficult to investigate historical events and to bring those investigations to a satisfactory outcome for the armed forces, for bereaved families or for wider society. I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot, and to all hon. Members who have attended tonight’s debate, for providing the House with the opportunity to debate this very important issue. I look forward very much to the Defence Committee’s inquiry, because I believe it will play a valuable part in helping to move this issue forward. Finally, I again encourage everyone to engage with the consultation in Northern Ireland. I reassure the House of the Government’s determination to try to find a way through this minefield and come to a satisfactory conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.