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Of course I will support that. As I said, it is imperative on all of us to link up with local service charities and do whatever we can on all levels to help our veterans and their loved ones, families and dependants. I have done some work with a military charity called Alabaré, which does a lot on housing, and I helped to secure it considerable funding from the LIBOR fund to invest in veterans’ accommodation.
Overall, the covenant has definitely helped to improve the way in which our country treats those who have protected our way of life, or are still doing so, by serving in the armed forces. We must never forget the huge debt of gratitude we owe both those who are currently serving and veterans, as well as their families. Freedom is not free: we do not live in a free country by accident, as most people in this country fully appreciate and understand.
When members of the armed forces swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown, they enter into a covenant relationship with society—they swear to protect and serve us all—but, regrettably, this covenant has recently been shown to be one-sided. In the foreword to the armed forces covenant annual report, the Secretary of State for Defence says:
“We have a duty across society to recognise this dedication and sacrifice, by ensuring that the policies we make, and the services that we provide, treat our Service personnel, Veterans, and their families fairly, and ensure they suffer no disadvantage by comparison to the rest of society as a result of their service.”
As other hon. Members have mentioned in some detail, my hon. Friend Sir Gerald Howarth in particular, there is at least one aspect in which former service personnel are being disadvantaged by their service. I am talking about the ongoing, politically motivated witch hunt that is now taking place against former soldiers and service people who served in Northern Ireland during the troubles. Only last weekend, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland wrote in an article in The Daily Telegraph that there is an “imbalance” that has led to a “disproportionate” focus on criminal inquiries involving former soldiers. That is a clear admission of failure in relation to the armed forces covenant and of people being disadvantaged by their service.
I was interested to read the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence in December that, in line with the Government’s commitment to the armed forces covenant, they plan, in order to stop service personnel and their families having to pursue lengthy and stressful claims in the courts,
“to provide better compensation…for injuries or death in combat equal to that which a court would be likely to award if it found negligence. As part of this reform, we intend to clarify in primary legislation the long-standing common law principle that the Government are not liable for damages as a result of injuries or deaths sustained in combat.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 617, c. 53WS.]
The Secretary of State also said that that would address the so-called judicialisation of war. The Government are able to act, with primary legislation, to protect their own interests, but what is happening to our Northern Ireland veterans is also, in my opinion, a judicialisation of war.
Let me bring to the House’s attention one of the many ongoing cases in which the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland—incidentally, he is a former lawyer for Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams—is seeking to prosecute two surviving veterans who were part of an Army patrol that shot the known IRA terrorist John McCann. Sadly, one of the patrol has died in the intervening years. The soldiers were investigated fully at the time, and the fact that the length of time that has passed means there is a lack of forensic evidence and credible eye-witness testimony would in my view make the trial, in modern terms, untenable.
We need to bring in legislation quickly to provide a statute of limitations on all sides. That would help to draw a line under the terrible events of the troubles and bring the communities together. There would also be no further retrospective prosecutions of our service people. I want to make a point that I have previously made in the House: there is no moral equivalence whatsoever between terrorists and brave service people who were keeping the peace to protect all communities. Nine hundred and sixty one people were killed serving in the police, the police reserve, the Army, the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment—nearly a third of all people who lost their lives in the troubles. It is clear to me that on this issue the Government have broken the military covenant. Clearly, we are not protecting or supporting our veterans who volunteered to put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf. The Government are letting them down badly.
Nobody is suggesting that military justice and due process should not apply on operations. Our people operate under the highest possible standards and with very strict rules of engagement. They are a great force for good in the world, but where service personnel have been judged to have carried out their duties, often in extremely difficult circumstances and at great risk to themselves, their actions should not be second-guessed years later for the sake of political expediency, a form of appeasement and the weakness of some of our politicians.
This is not just about dealing with the past. This is about upholding the covenant and our country’s honour, so that the people serving today and those thinking of enlisting have the reassurance that, whatever awful situation we send them into, it will not result, 30 or 40 years down the line, in their lives being ruined by retrospective, politically motivated prosecutions.