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Armed Forces: Inquiries

Volume 785: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they propose to take to protect members of the armed forces from repeated inquiries into the same incident.

My Lords, the Iraq Historic Allegations Team has been closed, with a vastly reduced caseload being transferred to the service police. Over 90% of the investigations into allegations from Afghanistan have been discontinued without charges being brought. Conducting ECHR-compliant investigations contemporaneously will avoid the need to achieve retrospective compliance in the future. Regarding Northern Ireland, the Government are working to ensure that the approach to addressing the past is fair, balanced and proportionate and that veterans are fully supported throughout.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Has not this problem been largely created by a number of costly lawyers who involve themselves in these affairs? Why does the principle of no double jeopardy not apply in the Ministry of Defence, as elsewhere?

My Lords, the multitude of investigations that took place following UK operations in Iraq only arose following a definitive ruling by the court that the ECHR applies even overseas, by which time operations in Iraq had concluded. No one, least of all the Government, desires to see repeated inquiries; that is in no sense a desirable state of affairs. My original Answer shows, I hope, that we wish to minimise this as far as possible but, at the same time, the Government have a duty to obey the ruling of the courts and to ensure that criminal allegations against the Armed Forces are investigated properly.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I find it very difficult to advise a young person to consider a career in the Regular Armed Forces, because it appears that neither the chain of command nor Ministers can protect a serviceman from these types of allegations?

My Lords, I am very sorry to hear my noble friend’s view on that matter. As I have said, it is an issue of great regret that service personnel and veterans have been subject to repeated inquiries. As my original Answer showed, if UK troops are deployed on overseas operations in the future, we will ensure that the Armed Forces are resourced properly to investigate any allegations at that time, rather than be subject to a slew of retrospective allegations, which frankly have been very difficult to get to the bottom of.

My Lords, this is a sensitive issue and, if I may say so, the noble Earl has struck a very fine balance in the competing interests, but I remind him that prosecution has to be based not just on probable cause but on public interest. It is at least arguable that it is not in the public interest for people over 70 to be prosecuted in relation to events that took place a long time ago. However, the question I really want to direct to him is about public inquiries. The frequency of a public inquiry can be debilitating for individuals, but the length of one can be equally debilitating. Is it not now time to accept as a template the Leveson inquiry: always judge-led, with a clear and unambiguous remit and with a fixed timetable?

My Lords, I take it that the noble Lord is referring principally to the situation that applies to veterans of the Northern Ireland campaign, and I have a lot of sympathy with what he says. However, it is the Government’s policy to adhere to the Stormont House agreement of December 2014, under which some legacy institutions will be set up. Those institutions will be under a duty to ensure that our veterans are not unfairly treated or disproportionately investigated, and will reflect that 90% of deaths in the Troubles were caused by terrorists, rather than members of the Armed Forces. The next stage in that process is to consult publicly, which we will do before long.

My Lords, will the Government take steps to introduce statutory limitation in time to investigations of alleged crimes related to service on operations?

My Lords, this proposal has been put forward by the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, and the Government have noted it. We are well aware, and recognise, that there are alternative views on how best to deal with the legacy of the past. In recognition of that, the consultation on Northern Ireland will acknowledge that there are other views on how to address the past, including that put forward by the Defence Committee. A public consultation, as I have just mentioned, would provide everybody with an interest with an opportunity to give their views on the best approach to addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, in particular.

My Lords, this is part of a bigger problem—an in-theatre conduct, post-theatre investigation problem. It is about the difficult problem of the military legally vesting violence on the Queen’s enemies, as opposed to criminality on the battlefield. The excoriating report of the Defence Committee on the Iraq Historic Allegations Team brought that out, as did the rather apologetic response from the MoD and questions on the subject. Will the Minister reconsider his Answer of 5 September and agree that we should have a public consultation with expert input to try to get to the bottom of this, so that we can produce a consensual answer that goes to the root of the problem, and include it in the 2020 Armed Forces Bill?

As my noble friend Lady Goldie made clear on Monday, in answer to a Question from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, there will be a full-scale independent review of the service justice system. That will give an opportunity for anyone to feed in their views. I therefore hope that the issues about which the noble Lord is rightly concerned can be addressed in that context.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is something odd about this situation? It is many years now since any of the Northern Irish republican terrorists who murdered our friends Airey Neave, Ian Gow, Tony Berry and others, who attempted to murder the then Prime Minister, and who crippled my wife and gravely injured me since any of those sort of people have been brought to trial. When any suggestion of that is made, they wave their “get out of jail free” cards, which they were issued by former Prime Minister Blair. However, in the meantime, soldiers who were doing their duty protecting us and the citizens of Northern Ireland against those sort of terrorists are still under threat.

My Lords, I have enormous sympathy with my noble friend in what he has just said. We, as a Government have looked at these issues very closely indeed. Following the 2013 critical report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, the Historical Investigations Unit in Northern Ireland will be required to re-examine those cases investigated by the former Historical Enquiries Team which involved state actors. However, my right honourable friend the Defence Secretary is working with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to ensure that closed cases are reinvestigated, as opposed to re-examined, only where there are strong reasons for doing so, such as the availability of new evidence. The forthcoming draft Bill will set that out in detail.