Armed Forces Veterans: Historic Allegations

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th July 2018.

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Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk 12:00 am, 9th July 2018

If he will bring forward legislative proposals for a statute of limitations to protect British armed forces veterans from prosecution for historic allegations.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Defence

Before I answer my hon. Friend’s question, I think it is right to record our deepest sympathy to the family and friends of Dawn Sturgess. Our thoughts and prayers are very much with them, as well as with the recovery of Mr Rowley. Our armed forces continue to provide support to the police investigation, including through the safe removal of vehicles, and they will help with any further requests.

With reference to my hon. Friend’s question, I understand the concerns over whether serving and former personnel are receiving the legal protection and certainty that they deserve. I am therefore pleased to announce that I have established a dedicated team within the Ministry of Defence to consider this issue and to advise on the way forward. This work will be complementary to the work of the Defence Committee, which is looking at the specific question of how to protect our service personnel and veterans against historic allegations as part of its inquiry into this important topic.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Obviously, many veterans will listen carefully to what he has said, particularly Dennis Hutchings, a Northern Ireland veteran who was arrested in a dawn raid and charged with attempted murder in respect of an allegation from 1974 which had already been fully investigated four times and completely closed—

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk

I would just suggest to the Secretary of State that we need to look at the situation regarding all veterans, so that veterans from all campaigns can have a statute of limitations.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we should be looking at this not in isolation but right across the piece. That is why we have set up the dedicated team, but it is also important to look at the evidence and information collected by the Select Committee.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

I completely agree that we have to ensure that our armed forces personnel are protected from vexatious and ludicrous legal claims from the past, but do we not also need to ensure that we can pursue international war crimes and criminals all around the world and that we do not renege on those promises?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Our armed forces have the very highest standards, and our ability to pursue people right around the world who have done some very bad things is absolutely the right stance to have. That is what we will continue to do.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Defence Committee

The Defence Committee will warmly welcome the setting up of the dedicated team. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 means that soldiers and terrorists alike cannot be sentenced to more than two years in jail, of which they will probably serve only half, and that in those circumstances, it is right that we should move to a statute of limitations so that we do not have an unfair imbalance where some are prosecuted and others are not?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend is correct in his analysis of the current situation. We are keen to find a long-term solution to help all service personnel, from conflicts not only in Northern Ireland but in Afghanistan and Iraq, to ensure that vexatious claims are eliminated.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

After the Good Friday agreement, a political decision was made to give letters of comfort to terrorists. Can we not make a political decision to give letters of comfort to our soldiers?

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Defence

The reason that we are setting up the dedicated team is to look at all the options. That is why it is so important to work with the Select Committee to try to find solutions to this problem, which has been going on for far too long.