With this it will be convenient to consider:
Clauses 2 to 8 stand part.
Amendment 1, in schedule 1, page 13, line 19, after “offences” insert
“other than the prosecution of members and former members of the armed forces for murder, manslaughter or culpable homicide, or for attempt of those offences, if the alleged offence was committed—
(a) more than 20 years before the date of issue of proceedings; and
(b) when the accused person was subject to service law, or was a civilian under service discipline, and engaged in a UK peacekeeping operation; and
(c) if the alleged offence relates to events which took place in Northern Ireland and which have been the subject of an investigation by—
(i) a service police force or a UK police force, or
(ii) a coroner.”.
The intention of this amendment and the similar amendment to Schedule 2 is to remove prosecutions against current and former members of the armed forces for certain alleged offences committed during military operations or in similar circumstances from the ambit of authorised expenditure by the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland.
That schedule 1 be the First schedule to the Bill.
Amendment 2, in schedule 2, page 27, line 33, after “offences” insert
“other than the prosecution of members and former members of the armed forces for murder, manslaughter or culpable homicide, or for attempt of those offences, if the alleged offence was committed—
(a) more than 20 years before the date of issue of proceedings; and
(b) when the accused person was subject to service law, or was a civilian under service discipline, and engaged in a UK peacekeeping operation; and
(c) if the alleged offence relates to events which took place in Northern Ireland and which have been the subject of an investigation by—
(i) a service police force or a UK police force, or
(ii) a coroner.”
The intention of this amendment and the similar amendment to Schedule 1 is to remove prosecutions against current and former members of the armed forces for certain alleged offences committed during military operations or in similar circumstances from the ambit of authorised expenditure by the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland.
That schedule 2 be the Second schedule to the Bill.
I am most grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for selecting the amendments. I want to say at once to our colleagues from Northern Ireland that I deliberately did not speak on Second Reading. They had some very important issues to raise on the budget and on decision making, but I hope they will understand that when it comes to this particular matter there is a UK issue at stake. Several hundred thousand British soldiers served in Northern Ireland throughout the troubles. The situation we are now confronted with raises issues that, while they are important to communities in Northern Ireland, go way beyond Northern Ireland.
At the outset of this debate, I hope the right hon. Gentleman knows that Members on the Democratic Unionist party Benches absolutely salute the courage, the dedication and the record of servicemen from across all of the United Kingdom who gave of their time, their duty and, for too many, their lives in defence of Ulster. We salute them, sir, tonight.
I am most grateful for that, and in particular for the tone in which it was expressed.
This is not just a UK issue, but it is a long-running UK issue. I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friends who have continued to raise it before the House: my right hon. Friend Richard Benyon, who originally promoted a Bill on the subject, and many others who served in the Province and who have contributed to debates on this issue. Through this Bill we are quite rightly giving large sums of money—hundreds of millions of pounds—to the Northern Ireland Departments, including the judicial Departments, for
“historical investigations and other legacy costs”.
I submit to the Committee that Parliament, even if there were no other concerns, would have every right to debate those sums, but there are other concerns here, which have been well articulated already in this Parliament.
Investigations under way in Northern Ireland are putting servicemen, servicewomen and police officers, whose duty it was to protect the public, almost on a par with terrorists who were content to murder and to maim. There cannot and should not be any moral equivalence between the two. It is now worse than that, however. We are now, through practice in Northern Ireland, discriminating against members of the security forces. Let me put it very simply: can it be morally right that a terrorist suspected of involvement in some of the worst atrocities, such as murdering four troopers in Hyde park and slaughtering their horses, should be given a letter of comfort guaranteeing immunity from prosecution, when those who have served the state to protect our people, in cases that have already been investigated, concluded and dismissed, are now seeing those cases reopened 30, 40 or more years after the event?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that roughly 300 Northern Ireland veterans are fearful of the knock on the door. All the allegations were investigated fully at the time. What is worse is that under the PSNI inquiry they were reinvestigated about four years ago and most of the veterans were told that there was nothing further to worry about. Some have been rearrested in dawn raids, and a number have been charged with attempted murder. That breaks the military covenant and is a betrayal of our incredibly brave veterans.
Absolutely, and some cases have been reopened more than once.
Nobody in this House would suggest that our troops should be exempt from investigation or prosecution for any kind of wrongdoing—of course not. Parliament itself requires, through the armed forces Acts, that any such allegation should be properly investigated by the service police. If there is new evidence concerning recent allegations, then of course they should be looked at. Equally, however, we cannot accept a situation where the whole process begins to be abused by cases simply being reopened for the sake of it, where there is not substantive new evidence. That was the case as allegations accumulated under the Iraq historical allegation apparatus, which was one reason why I shut it down as Defence Secretary and why, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, I laid evidence before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, which eventually resulted in the key solicitor involved being struck off.
In Northern Ireland, the opposite is happening. Allegations of misconduct are being reopened 30 or 40 years later, when memories cannot be trusted and evidence may be hard to come by. Can a court really be sure 45 years after the events exactly what warning was shouted at two in the morning in a street in west Belfast in the early 1970s? These are the kinds of cases that are now being reopened, and I submit to the Committee that Parliament now needs to draw a line. The purpose of amendments 1 and 2 is to introduce a statute of limitations for the first time to say that cases more than—there can be different views on this, but this is what I have said in the amendment—20 years old, so from the date of the Good Friday agreement, cannot now be reopened if they have already been investigated.
Of course, a statute of limitations in itself raises complexities. I understand that. Many issues around it would need to be looked at. For example, we heard much in the previous debate about the bravery of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and the police are not included in this amendment. I understand that there are some reservations about including them. There are complexities, but there is nothing unusual about a statute of limitations. In a previous debate, my hon. Friend Robert Courts reminded the House that there are statutes of limitation in commercial law: cases cannot be reopened when companies have dissolved and documents cannot be traced, and it is not possible to properly ascertain the change of responsibility, or rules and regulations from an earlier period no longer apply.
As the right hon. Gentleman explained, the amendments apply only to the armed forces. I put on record my enormous, deep gratitude for the tremendous courage and sacrifice of all members of the armed forces who served in Northern Ireland—but so too did the members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, now the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I think the right hon. Gentleman has to explain to those many members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary —many more members, in fact—who are being investigated time and again in various forms in Northern Ireland why his amendments do not treat those in the police service with any equivalence this evening.
I am very happy to accept that particular challenge. My amendment may well not be watertight. I understood that there were some reservations in the PSNI about a statute of limitations. That is one of the complexities.
There are other complexities: if we introduce a statute of limitations in Northern Ireland, why not introduce it elsewhere, where the British military is involved in other campaigns? I am sure that we will hear from the Secretary of State about other difficulties involving the European convention on human rights and so on, but the principle is that there should be some form of limitation. We cannot endlessly go back. Are we to reopen cases where it is alleged that Canadian or British troops shot prisoners out of hand in one of the more difficult days after the D-day landing? Should those cases be reopened? Nobody in this House would say yes. There must come a point when we have to draw a line.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his amendments, but does he agree that we need to tread very carefully, as there are important principles of law here? Our armed forces do not want to be aside from or above the law; they uphold the law. Does he also agree that under the military covenant our armed forces must suffer no disadvantage—that is the test—but that in that important regard they are at a significant disadvantage under the law as it stands?
I accept both those points. I made the first one myself—our armed forces are subject to armed forces legislation and no member of the armed forces would want any exemption for wrongdoing or misconduct—but the second point is the more important. As it stands, ex-servicemen and women—mainly servicemen —are being discriminated against by the process.
The Committee and the Government, if they will accept the amendment, or the spirit of it, have an opportunity to declare their will to Northern Ireland—to the judiciary in Northern Ireland, to the legal system in Northern Ireland, to some of the fee-hungry barristers in Northern Ireland—and to our own appeal courts here, that Parliament will no longer tolerate a situation where terrorist murderers are allowed to walk free while ex-servicemen, veterans who have put their lives on the line for the rest of us, fear a knock on the door and can be hauled from their beds, arrested, flown to Belfast, put into a cell and indicted for an offence that might or might not have been committed 30 or 40 years before. That cannot be right.
I make one final point: these ex-servicemen are not the generals or even the colonels who wrote the rules of engagement, planned the patrols and issued the orders, but the ordinary soldiers, the men of the platoons, who went out into the dark, into danger, on our behalf to face up to the terrorist challenge in Northern Ireland. We owe it to them, one way or another, to say that enough is enough and that the hounding of our veterans must now stop. I look to the Government to tell the Committee how they propose to stop it.
It is a huge privilege to follow Sir Michael Fallon, not least because, when Secretary of State for Defence, he seriously engaged with us on the Defence Select Committee when we conducted an inquiry into fatalities that arose during the troubles in Northern Ireland. He engaged with us and considered our report—we all on the Committee collectively and appropriately considered the issues at hand—and we can hear that he is one of the growing number of principled parliamentarians who recognise there is an issue that we need to address. He also fairly outlined some of the deficiencies in the amendments. I say that not as a criticism but drawing on comments he himself made.
Our report was very clear, in its second recommendation, that the Government should extend any proposal to the brave members of the RUC. We have heard many honeyed words this evening about the bravery and sacrifice of police officers, both past and present, and many Members have put forward their views on the noble cause that police officers served in our community in Northern Ireland, and yet, of course, they are absent from the amendments. There are various reasons for that. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the complexities, but the complexities applying to police officers past and present in Northern Ireland apply similarly to Army veterans. It is not the case that those complexities are confined to Army veterans in Northern Ireland or in the rest of Great Britain and do not apply to the police; they apply equally, and they are twofold. There should be no amnesty for terrorists, and there should be no equivalence between the honourable actions of service personnel and the actions of those who went out to commit murder and mayhem in our streets.
Many who have served in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Police Service of Northern Ireland or the Army, and who live in Northern Ireland, will never countenance the day when their service is treated as if it were in any way comparable with what was done by those who sought to destroy our society, and I think that they are right. However, I recognise that dealing with that issue opens up another panoply of legal complexities.
Dr Lewis—the esteemed Chairman of the Defence Committee—and I have regular discussions about how we can obviate some of the legal constraints that apply to a statute of limitations. I think Members should take the opportunity to read the legal submissions from which our inquiry benefited—from Professor Richard Ekins of Oxford University, Professor Kieran McEvoy of Queen’s University Belfast, Professor Peter Rowe of Lancaster University, and Professor Phillipe Sands QC of University College London.
What can we take as an overarching lesson from the varied range of views that were expressed, which included disagreements? This Parliament is sovereign. This Parliament can set our laws, create the circumstances around natural justice, and outline what a criminal justice process should be. It can inject some equity and fairness into that process, in a way that complies with article 2 of the European convention on human rights, or article 3, in the case of torture. I think that the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks was right to refer, in his amendment, to previous satisfactory investigations. No one is trying to obviate the rules of natural justice in this country, but he is right to suggest that we should stand firm when, again or again or again, a knock comes at the door.
I pay tribute to Richard Benyon, to Sir Henry Bellingham and to the former Member of Parliament for Aldershot, Sir Gerald Howarth, all of whom have been steadfast champions of the notion of protecting those who protected us.
We talk very loosely about 90% of all troubles-related killings being carried out by terrorists, with 10% attributed to state forces, but we can state categorically that each and every one of those that fall within the 90% were crimes, carried out by terrorists who were involved in state subvention. We cannot say that of the 10%. We cannot say that of those who put their lives on the line to protect all of us. We need only look across at that door to see three plaques in memories of three Members of this House who were cut down by terrorists in this country. We do not have to look too far away.
I know that memories fade, and I know that people talk about the price of peace. I do not remember any legal constraints or complexities being raised too strongly in the House in 1998, when the prisons were opened. I do not remember too many legal complexities bothering those boffins in Whitehall when they constructed the on-the-runs scheme. Time and time again in the pursuit of peace, to please those who tried to destroy this country, legal minds and successive Governments have created conditions that have allowed the doors to open for terrorists.
I praise the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks—and I say that meaningfully—as the principal parliamentarian to support this continual quest. He tabled the amendments in the knowledge that they were not perfect, and that this was a journey that we would have to make together in a committed and principled way. It is right for Parliament to set conditions that provide protection for those who protected us and who have no equivalence with those who tried to destroy this country, in a way that does not legally extend an amnesty or state immunity, because as a state we will have discharged our duty. We are talking about cases where there has been an investigation and where we are satisfied that the information gathered is exhaustive, and it is natural justice for those being prosecuted who served this country that we should move on.
I respond to the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks not to detract from the thrust of what he is attempting to achieve or the principled spirit of what he has outlined, but to stand at one with him in recognising that this is a wrong that needs to be righted, and that it cannot be constrained or confined to Northern Ireland alone; he has outlined the implications right across this country, and indeed in theatres beyond this country.
I hope that the spirit in which the right hon. Gentleman brought forward these amendments will continue to feature as we navigate the legal and moral complexities and do what is right, in the interests of our veterans, our current armed forces personnel, past and present, and those who served in the RUC, the PSNI and others. If we can get collective agreement tonight that that is our direction of travel and that is what we want to achieve, and that we will be honourable and earnest in our quest to protect those who protected us, he will have our support.
It is an honour to follow Gavin Robinson; he is always a profound speaker, and he captured the spirit today, and the whole Committee was, I think, enchanted by his contribution. I thank my right hon. Friend Sir Michael Fallon. His time as Secretary of State for Defence was more than distinguished; he was an absolutely superb Defence Secretary. He stood up for the armed forces and the military in a way that few could, and I want to put on the record how much I enjoyed working with him. I was once his Whip, and he was quite difficult to whip, I have to say, because he was very determined in what he wanted to achieve, but we worked together very well and managed to get some significant changes to legislation through, and I enjoyed working with him immensely.
I also want to put it on the record that this Government will always salute the tremendous heroism and courage displayed by members of the armed forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary throughout the troubles in Northern Ireland. Operation Banner was the longest continuous deployment in British military history, lasting from 1969 to 2007. During that period, over 250,000 people served, more than 7,000 medals for bravery were awarded, and the RUC was collectively awarded the George Cross for valour. As I said to the annual Police Federation for Northern Ireland conference in May, without the contribution of our armed forces and the RUC, and—in so many cases, their sacrifice—there would, quite simply, have been no peace process in Northern Ireland. For years, they stood between the rule of law and the descent into anarchy, and by their actions ensured that the future of Northern Ireland would only ever be determined by democracy and consent, never by violence. All of us in this House and beyond therefore owe them an enormous debt of gratitude, something we must never forget.
We remember the more than 1,100 members of the security services who were murdered, and the many thousands more who were maimed or injured, physically and mentally. And as this Government have always made clear, we will never accept any kind of moral equivalence between those terrorists who sought to destroy the rule of law and the security forces whose job it was to maintain the rule of law.
We will also continue to reject any attempt to rewrite the history of the troubles in order to justify or legitimise republican and loyalist terrorism. Let us not forget the bare facts: 60% of deaths in the troubles were caused by republican terrorists; 30% by loyalist terrorists; and just 10% by the state, and the vast majority of those were entirely lawful.
For most of the period of Operation Banner, the role of the armed forces was to support the civil power in maintaining the rule of law against the terrorist threat. Northern Ireland was not an armed conflict, and we should be careful in the language we use to describe what was happening in a part of our own country. In upholding the rule of law, the armed forces were at all times required to operate within it while being fully accountable to it. This is what set them apart from the terrorists, who operated outside the law.
As we know, in the vast majority of cases, members of the armed forces and the police carried out their duties with exemplary professionalism and restraint, often in the most provocative and dangerous of circumstances, yet, as with any deployment of this scale and duration, there were also mistakes. The Government have quite rightly apologised whenever the state or those acting for the state fell short of the high standards we expect, but I cannot emphasise enough that events like Bloody Sunday are not the defining story of Operation Banner, and those who served can rightly be proud of the role they played in ultimately bringing Northern Ireland to the much improved place that it is today.
I fully understand the concern expressed by Members of this House about the treatment of former service personnel in respect of Northern Ireland, and about the apparent disproportionate focus on their actions rather than on those of the terrorists. I also understand the continuing concerns being expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks over the issue of the so-called on-the-runs and the letters that were issued under the scheme introduced by the Labour Government.
Will the Secretary of State put on record the Government’s admiration for the integrity and independence of the judiciary in Northern Ireland? As she will know, its members were often targeted. Some of them were murdered and many were injured, yet despite all the threats and the violence, they continue to serve Northern Ireland independently and with great distinction.
The hon. Lady alludes to one of the points that I am going to make later on my concerns about the amendment, but I am very happy to put that on record. I have met members of the judiciary in Northern Ireland, and it is an extraordinary experience to visit the law courts in Belfast and to compare the protection around those courts with what we have in Great Britain, where people can enter the courts freely, attend the public galleries and be part of the judicial process. I have seen the levels of security that apply in Northern Ireland precisely because of the level of threat to members of the judiciary that she has mentioned.
I shall continue with my point about the so-called on-the-runs. I want to be clear that, whatever its shortcomings, the scheme never amounted to an amnesty or to immunity to prosecution. All that the letters issued at the time stated was whether an individual was still wanted by the police on the basis of the evidence available at the time. This was confirmed by the independent inquiry into the scheme carried out by Lady Justice Hallett in 2014. In the case of the alleged Hyde Park bomber, the problem was that he was given a letter in error stating that he was no longer wanted, when in fact he was wanted by the Metropolitan police. That enabled his defence to argue an abuse of process, which was upheld by the judge and caused the prosecution to be stayed. However, in responding to Lady Justice Hallett’s review, the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers, could not have been clearer when she said:
“If there is considered to be evidence or intelligence of their involvement in crime, they will be investigated by the police, and if the evidence is sufficient to warrant prosecution they will be prosecuted.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 585, c. 779.]
My right hon. Friend also made it very clear in 2014 that the scheme was now at an end.
The current imbalances are of course taking place under the current mechanisms for addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, over none of which the UK Government have any direct control. Indeed, there is widespread consensus that the current mechanisms in Northern Ireland are not working effectively for anyone— for veterans or for the victims of terrorism. That is why in 2014, after 11 weeks of discussions with the main Northern Ireland parties and, as appropriate, with the Irish Government, we brought forward proposals for new bodies, designed as set out in the Stormont House agreement. Significantly, during those talks there was no support for simply drawing a line under the past or for the introduction of amnesties for troubles-era offences, which, to comply with international law, would have had to apply to all sides.
May I urge the Secretary of State to realise that the protagonists in this bitter debate are sometimes trapped by their own rhetoric? The truth of the matter is that one side wants there to be an amnesty for one group of people, but not the other, and the other side wants the reverse. If she likes, she can come to the conclusion that there is no support for a drawing of the line for everyone, or she could conclude that it is up to the Government to take a lead and draw the line for everyone in the knowledge that those who cannot speak out for that policy could nevertheless live with it.
My right hon. Friend feels strongly about this matter and has considered it in depth in his role as Chair of the Defence Committee, which has started a new piece of work on it. In my discussions with representatives of veterans and victims groups in Northern Ireland, the firm view that this was not the time for amnesties. I well understand and will discuss the steps that could be taken, but I caution him about his interpretation of the comments that he has heard. That was not what I saw with my own eyes or in the evidence that I have received, but I understand his view. We are consulting, which I will come on to in a moment, and I would welcome the Defence Committee’s views on the consultation. I am also happy to work with him on the inquiry that he has started.
To echo the comments of my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson and for the sake of clarity, this debate is not between two sides that want an amnesty. For the record, the DUP does not support an amnesty for anyone connected with Northern Ireland. We do support a statute of limitations, which is not an amnesty. This House should never equate the men and women who stood on the frontline—I had the privilege of standing beside them—with those who skulked in the shadows. That is not what this debate is about.
The right hon. Gentleman has been a leader in this area for many years, and I pay tribute not only to his personal experience, but to his leadership on this matter and his role in the Stormont House agreement and other matters since. I also want to put on the record my thanks for his help and support when I was the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and he was the Northern Ireland representative on the first world war steering group. His leadership there has led to some magnificent and wonderful commemorations in Northern Ireland and a real bringing together of communities to recognise the sacrifices that were made 100 years. I had the privilege of being in northern France two weeks ago for the Somme commemoration—perhaps it was only last week, but it feels like a lifetime ago—which was a wonderful tribute to him and his work.
Just for the sake of clarity, the Defence Committee has never used the word “amnesty” and has always used the phrase “statute of limitations”. However, the point I made earlier applies equally if that phrase is substituted for “amnesty”. One party, as it were, wants it for one side but not the other, and vice versa. It is disappointing that the Government’s response to the Committee’s report was originally going to have a special section in its consultation exercise to consider the possibility of a statute of limitations, but they went back on that pledge that had been given in writing in their response to our report.
I am of course happy to discuss the matter again with my right hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that the language and terminology that are used are incredibly important in this debate. With a statute of limitations, we tested this with political parties, victims groups, veterans groups and others in Northern Ireland. To be legal, there would have to be a statute of limitations on both sides, and it would have to include a proper process of reconciliation. We were unable to find representative bodies that were able to accept that as a conclusion. It would therefore have been misleading to put it as an alternative approach in the consultation document—I make it clear that this is on a specific consultation on setting up the institutions agreed at the Stormont House talks.
As set out in the Conservative party manifestos at the last two general elections, the Government believe that the proposed new legacy bodies provide a better way forward than the current mechanisms. They will address the legacy of the past in ways that are fair, balanced and proportionate and that do not unfairly focus on former members of the armed forces and the RUC. As I have said, we are now consulting on those bodies, and the consultation runs until
Earlier, my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary answered a question from my hon. Friend Sir Henry Bellingham by confirming that the Ministry of Defence has set up a dedicated team to look specifically at how this matter is addressed. We all want to make sure that those brave heroes who gave so much to defend us are treated properly with dignity and respect. It is right that the Ministry of Defence should look at this for the armed forces across the whole United Kingdom, not just in the Northern Ireland context.
The ongoing consultation is one reason why the Government are unable to accept the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks. First, it would be wrong to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation. Secondly, the Government do not believe this Bill is the right vehicle for such amendments. This is a Budget Bill designed to ensure that the necessary funding is available to ensure the continued delivery of public service in Northern Ireland. That touches on the point made by Lady Hermon about the independence of the judiciary. When we start looking at how the amendment would work and how the direction would happen, we see that it would impinge on the independence of the judiciary. Again, I am very nervous about starting to make such decisions in this House, although I well understand the sentiment behind the amendment and why my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks has posed the question.
Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, the Government cannot accept the amendment because it would undermine the rule of law. The effect of the amendment would be to remove the ability of the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland to prosecute former soldiers for the next 12 months, even when new evidence came to light which the original investigation could not have considered and that the prosecution believed could lead to a conviction. Again, that goes to the point made by the hon. Member for North Down. This would significantly undermine the independence of the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland and the exercise of the statutory functions of that office. Decisions made by the DPP are rightly based on available evidence, and it would be manifestly wrong for financial considerations to influence decision making, as proposed in the amendment. Although ultimately it would be for the courts to decide, the likelihood is that these amendments would be incompatible with our obligations under article 2. As such, should the amendment be made, I would be unable as Secretary of State to certify the Bill as compatible with convention rights for introduction to the other place.
My right hon. Friend is explaining what the practical and legal obstacles to this amendment might be, including the operation of the European convention on human rights. If the Government concede that there is no moral equivalence between the actions of terrorists and the actions of the military, should not the application of the law also recognise that in some way? If this amendment is not possible, what other means might there be to ensure that brave members of the armed forces are not unnecessarily and wrongly pursued nearly half a century later?
I do not wish to detain the Committee for significantly longer than I already have, but I suggest that I spend some time with my right hon. Friend explaining the thinking behind the Stormont House institutions and how we would get to a situation where there was not this disproportionate focus on the armed forces and law enforcement.
At the moment, all but one of the coronial inquests being looked at by the Lord Chief Justice relate to former military and law enforcement personnel. We also have a police ombudsman, who looks at wrongdoings of police officers, and a PSNI legacy investigations unit, 30% of whose case load deals with killings by the military and law enforcement. That cannot be considered proportionate, given that only 10% of the killings during the troubles were by members of the military or law enforcement. It cannot be the case that only 70% of the investigations by the PSNI legacy investigations unit are looking at terrorist killings, all of which were crimes. We need to get that balance right. My hon. Friend Dr Murrison, who chairs the Select Committee but was also a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office at the time of the Stormont House talks, has often spoken to me with great passion about how important it is that we redress this. The status quo is simply not acceptable. We are consulting on how the Stormont House institutions would make that better, but I would welcome representations from all hon. and right hon. Members in this Chamber to that consultation, so we can make sure we get this right.
As a Conservative who believes fundamentally in the rule of law, central to which is the independence of our prosecuting authorities, I believe that however well-intentioned the amendment from my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks, it leads us into some very dangerous territory. It would undermine and erode hard-won support for the criminal justice system within Northern Ireland. It would be used by those who wish to rewrite the history of the troubles to reinforce their claims that the UK Government has “something to hide” and is primarily concerned with covering up the actions of our armed forces. It will be seized upon by those who wish to portray the British state as the oppressor and the armed forces as human rights abusers—that is still language used by dissident republicans to boost recruitment today and who continue to pose a severe threat. It will create further uncertainty for those whose cases are currently before the courts, and it is not clear whether their cases would have to be adjourned to the end of the financial year. I regret to say that it will also simply play into the hands of those who wish to establish some moral equivalence between those who attacked the rule of law and those whose job it was to defend it.
I sympathise immensely with my right hon. Friend’s intentions, and I want to work with him to achieve the aims that he has set out so eloquently, but, for the reasons I have stated, I simply cannot support the amendment, and I urge him to withdraw it.
Let me begin where the Secretary of State ended, in saying that there can never be moral equivalence between the acts of the broad mass of those young men and women who were asked to serve in Northern Ireland at the behest of our society and those who instead sought to damage, maim and kill through the paramilitary groups of either side. As with other Members, I wish to pay tribute to those who served our nation. I wish also to follow the words of Lady Hermon in recognising as well the important role of the RUC during the troubles.
I recognise the argument put forward by Sir Michael Fallon, and he rightly was struck by and acted on the claims farming that he saw as a result of the situation in Iraq. However, there is no equivalent that reads immediately across to the situation in Northern Ireland, and it is important to establish that, even though I recognise that his motives are honourable in what he proposes.
I again follow the Secretary of State’s line in saying that there is currently a consultation on the historical inquiries, and it is important that that is allowed to take place and to go forward. It is important that we take the opportunities of the Stormont House agreement to move forward in the way that she outlined. In the debate on Second Reading, I said that we should make progress with exactly those kinds of institutional arrangements. It is important that we bring things to a rapid conclusion in the interests of victims on all sides.
The right hon. Member for Sevenoaks was challenged by the hon. Member for North Down on why the RUC/PSNI has been left out of the amendment. It is helpful to quote Mark Lindsay, the chair of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, who says:
“Let me be clear: This organisation is totally opposed to any legislation which proposes an amnesty”— a loaded word—
“for any crime. That’s any crime, whether committed by a police officer or terrorist from any side of the divide. Society must now decide, whether the solution is a political solution or a criminal justice solution.”
He goes on to say that it would be a “monstrous injustice” to his members were we to go down those lines. It is important that we listen to those words.
I met Mark Lindsay recently, and one point that he made to me was about the enormous importance of the Police Service of Northern Ireland having the trust of people across all communities. One way to damage that trust would be to open the PSNI up to the accusation that it somehow gained special treatment for its members, when the Police Federation for Northern Ireland does not want that kind of special treatment. That is important.
In response to Gavin Robinson, I should say that even the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, Arlene Foster, has expressed her own doubts about going down this road. She makes the point that the DUP has not been pushing for this as a party, and her concern is that it could lead to demands for a wider amnesty. That is important because, as the Secretary of State said, she has to sign off the legislation as compatible with the UK’s human rights obligations under international law—not things that we can change or arbitrate; things that we have signed up to as part of the UK’s global commitments. These are things that the UK signs up to as exemplars to be applied not just here in the United Kingdom but all around the world. They give us the freedom to criticise those who transgress human rights obligations. A strong body of opinion—I know this opinion was given to the Defence Committee—makes it clear that if the state is seen to act partially in a way that denies victims access to justice, it is transgressing its obligations under international law. In particular, if in doing that the state is seen to be partial and to be protecting state actors while not offering the same kind of procedure to others, the state is, in that partiality, accused of breaching its wider human rights obligation.
The comments by the leader of my party were directed specifically at the legacy proposals for Northern Ireland. To legislate for a statute of limitations on the narrow ground of Northern Ireland would not in our opinion be appropriate, because it would exclude deployments in the Gulf war and Afghanistan. It needs to be done on a UK-wide basis. My party would be supportive on that basis, but not if it is exclusively about Northern Ireland, because that would open it up to the risk that it would be used by others to try to bring about an amnesty, which is not what it would be.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that clarification, which leads me to begin to bring my remarks to a conclusion.
I stand strongly with the Secretary of State on the fact that the consultation process is already abroad. That consultation process now should be allowed to come to its full conclusion. That is the right way forward both for this House tonight and more generally for this country. In the context of Northern Ireland, it is important to take on board the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks that the possibility of seeing a wider amnesty will defeat the ambitions of victims of the violence during the troubles and those who were left bereaved by that violence. It could, of itself, allow off the hook those whom we would all want to see—even these years on—brought before our justice system and the courts. Within that, it is right and proper that the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks recognises the force of the argument that this is the wrong vehicle. It is the wrong occasion for this and it will almost certainly lead to the wrong kind of rules—temporary at very best. I do hope that he will consider very seriously whether this is the right approach on this occasion.
I believe some form of consensus is emerging that a statute of limitations might be the correct way forward, especially if it could be applied in a wider context than just the Northern Ireland scenario. I know that the Conservative manifesto at the last election talked about protecting troops from malicious charges such as had been posed most irresponsibly and on an industrial scale in relation to Iraq by invoking the law of armed conflict for future conflicts and ensuring that the criteria of the civil law could not be applied to them. That is where a problem might creep in in connection with Northern Ireland, because there is no way in which the law of armed conflict could be said to apply to that situation, which was internal to the United Kingdom.
We heard from the Secretary of State that, earlier today, the Defence Secretary made the very welcome announcement that a dedicated unit is being set up inside the Ministry of Defence to try to grip this problem, and I think that it will try to grip it at every level—not just for Northern Ireland, but for these wider conflicts. However, for this evening, I will obviously concentrate on the Northern Ireland situation. I wish to start by making brief reference to the report previously produced by the Defence Committee, which was referred to by Gavin Robinson in his very strong contribution to this debate a little while ago.
Our report entitled “Investigations into fatalities in Northern Ireland involving British military personnel”, HC 1064, was published on
I see the Secretary of State acknowledging that fact. She will know that the Defence Committee was particularly disappointed about something that I mentioned earlier in an intervention. In the Government’s response—the one that was published in November 2017—they reprinted two of our recommendations and it gave the following answer to them. The recommendations were as follows:
“It is clear from the experience of these legacy investigations that, unless a decision is taken to draw a line under all Troubles-related cases, without exception, they will continue to grind on for many years to come—up to half-a-century after the incidents concerned… Accordingly, we recommend the adoption of Option One—the enactment of a statute of limitations, covering all Troubles-related incidents, up to the signing of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which involved former members of the Armed Forces. This should be coupled with the continuation and development of a truth recovery mechanism which would provide the best possible prospect of bereaved families finding out the facts, once no-one needed to fear being prosecuted.”
At the very beginning of the right hon. Gentleman’s contribution, he summarised what he felt was the attitude in the House, which was that there was a consensus on a statute of limitations in Northern Ireland. May I just say that I am not in that consensus? I do not support a statute of limitations in Northern Ireland for the armed forces alone. I would like the right hon. Gentleman to address the really critical question. There is a fundamental principle of the British legal system that no one is above the law. How would he reconcile the amendment to which he is speaking with that fundamental principle?
I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s making her own position clear. I trust that, in the remarks that I am about to make, I will address precisely that point. It relates in particular to the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. If I fail to mention that later, I hope that the hon. Lady will leap up and remind me to do so. I just wish to continue with my theme for the moment, which is the Government’s initial response to the passages—the recommendations—that I just read out.
The Government said:
“While the Government believes that the most effective option to address Northern Ireland’s past is to implement the proposals set out in the Stormont House Agreement, the Government acknowledges that others have different views on the best way forward, including approaches such as that proposed by the Committee which do not involve recourse to the criminal justice system. As such, the Government intends to include within its forthcoming consultation on the draft Northern Ireland (Stormont House Agreement) Bill a section entitled ‘Alternative approaches to addressing the past’. This section of the consultation will discuss alternative ways forward and include a description of the Committee’s recommendation. The consultation will invite respondents to give their views on ‘the potential effectiveness and appropriateness of alternative approaches such as amnesties and a statute of limitations to address the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past’. Following the consultation’s conclusion, the Government will consider all views carefully to inform next steps.”
Now, all I can say is that the Committee was greatly encouraged by that positive response, and we were then considerably discouraged by the fact—which may or may not be connected with the change in Secretary of State—that we subsequently found that the consultation was not going to include the section as described officially in the response to our report. That seemed to be a step backwards.
I have heard it said time and again—this evening and in previous debates on the subject—the rather obvious truth that there is no moral equivalence between terrorists or people accused of terrorist offences, and people accused of having committed offences when they were members of the armed forces or security forces trying to protect the people of Northern Ireland. As I said, that is an obvious truth; there is no moral equivalence. However, it can be argued—and I feel that it must be argued—that there is a legal equivalence, because everybody who is accused of a crime is, in a sense, equal before the law. But something strange and particular happened in the context of Northern Ireland, and that was—this is where I come to the intervention of Lady Hermon—the passage of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. If I understand the Act correctly, and I think I do, it means that nobody can serve more than a two-year sentence, no matter how heinous the crimes that they committed, in the context of the troubles in Northern Ireland, which presumably means that, in practice, no one will spend more than half that length of time—12 months—in jail. Whether it be a question of pursuing terrorists decades after the event or of trying to pursue security personnel or members of the armed forces decades after the event, at the end of that whole process, even if anybody is found guilty of a crime that would normally attract a life sentence, they will end up spending no more than 12 months in jail.
I am listening to my right hon. Friend’s argument very carefully. It is not just a question of how much time some of these accused former servicemen may spend in jail—it is about the question mark hanging over them in later life, and their fear that when they go back to court in Northern Ireland they will not be protected. They get all kinds of memories coming back, and feel very afraid. So in a sense, their sentence is already a life sentence while the current legislation continues.
I entirely agree with every syllable of what my right hon. and gallant Friend says. We are now in a perverse situation where people are being pursued decades after the event without any scintilla of a suggestion that new evidence has been found. They are put through this disproportionate and agonising process, and at the end of it, in the unlikely event that they were found guilty, any sentence that they served would in no way be proportionate to the crime. The whole process has been undermined, because while one might make a moral, political or legal case to pursue someone to the ends of time for a capital crime—a crime of murder—if one knows right at the beginning that at the end of that huge process they are going to serve only a derisory sentence, that has to call into question the legitimacy of the proceedings.
Does my right hon. Friend have sympathy with my constituent, Dennis Hutchings, who is facing that situation as we speak despite the fact that witnesses are no longer around and that Dennis is terminally ill? He is the perfect example of what my right hon. Friend is speaking about.
I cannot comment on that particular case since it is now sub judice, but cases of that sort fall squarely within the situation that I am describing. As my right hon. and gallant Friend Sir Hugo Swire said, it is the process of pursuit, proceedings and trial, rather than the actual derisory sentence at the end of it, that amounts to cruel, unusual and almost certainly unjustified punishment that is inflicted so long after the event.
Nobody is suggesting that crimes that would be called war crimes, if this were an international rather than a civil conflict, should be excused and that people should be put above the law; but the provisions of international law can be met by combining a truth recovery process with a statute of limitations. If people who had committed heinous crimes years and years ago were, at the end of the process, going to serve a proportionate sentence, one could perhaps make out an argument that the matter should be allowed to proceed to the end of time. However, given the way in which terrorists, on the one hand, and armed forces personnel and security forces, on the other, have all been swept up into the concept of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act, meaning that they will serve, at most, a derisory sentence if eventually convicted—which most of them will not be—the way to proceed is the Nelson Mandela solution.
As my right hon. Friend Sir Michael Fallon said, his amendments are not perfect, and there will be concerns, but when is the right time for us to defend our veterans? When is the right time for those in this House to speak out and say, “Enough is enough”?
I have to declare an interest. It was not 30 or 40 years ago that I got on the troop ship from Liverpool across to Belfast docks. It was 42 years ago that I and the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards went across to Northern Ireland. I was petrified, like most young people were when they went into the armed forces and into combat. I was not going abroad—we were not going to Afghanistan, Iraq, Aden, Borneo or Malaya. I was going to another part of the United Kingdom to protect a community from terrorism. It was a policing role. I have never quite understood why we issued the general service medal for those who went to Northern Ireland, because it was part of the United Kingdom. It was not an operation, as we have heard. We were not on ops; we were assisting the RUC to protect the community. Sometimes that community turned on us, and we lost a lot of good friends and soldiers. Some we have never found. I have spoken in the House before about my captain, Captain Robert Nairac, whose bravery everybody should understand.
We are not here this evening to just accept what the Secretary of State has said and give it carte blanche. The Secretary of State has no idea what I am going to say, and other colleagues are waiting to argue for these amendments as well, but the Secretary of State and the Opposition Front Benchers have already made their mind up, before hearing from gallant colleagues who have served and colleagues who have never served but have constituents who are under threat day in, day out of a knock at the door or a letter. Perhaps that letter will come to me; perhaps I am one of those people. I am probably one of the older ones who served back then. I went in 1976, and the forces that were out there—some were volunteers for the Ulster Defence Regiment, which my hon. and gallant Friend Jim Shannon was serving in—were doing a fantastic job. The RUC was doing a fantastic job. At one stage, we had 10,000 soldiers putting their lives on the line in the Province to keep people safe.
I, like my right hon. Friend, served out there, in ’75, and I recall serving in the Bogside when we used to have to accompany the RUC there; they would not go were the military not with them at the time, patrolling in the same area. We were dealing with circumstances that are very difficult for modern generations to understand. We had to do so under a very different set of rules, and my concern is exactly his: that we are now judging on the basis of a wholly different set of criteria.
My right hon. and gallant Friend understands this so well. It was not so much that the RUC could not cope, but the threat to them was so great that we had to patrol with them. I did not serve in Londonderry or Belfast, even though I have been accused of doing naughty things in Belfast by the IRA and Sinn Féin. I served in Monaghan, Keady and Middletown, where we were in the RUC post, sometimes with the RUC and sometimes on our own.
It was a very difficult time, but we were not conscripts. We were young people who volunteered to serve in our armed forces. When I joined up, I knew that I was going to Northern Ireland. Basically, every 18 months you would go to Northern Ireland if you were from an infantry regiment. We knew we were going to go, and we knew how difficult it was going to be, but—this is the big but—I expected those who sent us to look after us. I honestly feel at the moment that veterans, and not just those from my day, do not feel that this House did the right thing for us, and they passionately feel that we are letting them down.
If this evening’s debate is not the answer and these amendments are not the right ones, I say to colleagues around the Chamber—I am so disappointed that some of my Labour friends who served in the armed forces are not here for something so damn important—that the people who did the right thing for us and for Northern Ireland are flagrantly being let down, day in and day out. They are told there is another consultation, that we cannot do it—that there is technicality here, and the judges will not do it—or that Sinn Féin will use this against us. I don’t give a monkey’s. The Commons should stand up for our veterans, and if we do not vote for that this evening, there is something seriously wrong.
It is a great honour to follow my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning, who made an extremely moving speech.
I plan to be brief, but I first want to thank the Secretary of State for Defence, who, in reply to my Question 1 this afternoon, said that he would set up a dedicated team at the Ministry of Defence to look at the situation of all veterans. I have sponsored two Adjournment debates on this subject, and I have also set up an informal parliamentary support group to look at the interests of veterans from all theatres.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir Michael Fallon on the way in which he moved his amendment. I underline the comments about his time as Defence Secretary, during which he worked tirelessly to try to stop some of this nonsense going on, particularly in respect of Iraq and Afghanistan. His amendments are a genuine attempt to try to move this debate forward and to propose a constructive suggestion.
I very much hope that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will do two things. First, I hope she will work with the Secretary of State for Defence to make sure that the unit being set up really starts to make a difference. Secondly, the consultation that she set up did not actually say anything about looking at a statute of limitations. She mentioned the word “amnesty”, but, as Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson made very clear, we are not talking about an amnesty, but about a statute of limitations. In this case it would affect Northern Ireland, but I would extend it to all veterans from all theatres so that they knew where they stood and that, after a period of time, it would not be possible for them to be subject to the knock on the door. The qualification would of course be that that applied unless any new evidence became available.
Would my hon. Friend not say that all veterans who find themselves in such a position today, tomorrow or in years to come should be looked after properly by the Ministry of Defence—provided with support, including if necessary counselling, and with security and an escort, particularly if they are going back to zones in which they are accused of committing these crimes—so that they do not feel they are not wanted, and do not feel isolated and forgotten?
My right hon. Friend is 100% right on that point, but we hope very much that there will not be any prosecutions in the future, or any further arrests.
The key point is that our security forces, as has been pointed out, served in Northern Ireland with the utmost professionalism and dedication in an incredibly febrile, tense and dangerous atmosphere. Young soldiers were sent over—volunteers: we are talking not about conscripts, but professional soldiers—and they were the envy of the entire world. Does the Secretary of State believe that any other army from any other country in the world would have showed the sort of restraint that our Army showed in Northern Ireland, as indeed did the police?
Some 10% of the killings in Northern Ireland were carried out either by the police or the security forces. That is a staggering figure. One has to bear in mind that every single case was fully investigated. Soldiers were operating under the law of the land—not under armed forces law under the Geneva convention, but under our own law—with the yellow book or the yellow card, and every instance was fully investigated at the time by the military police, the RUC or other authorities. That compares with the terrorists, who operated under no known code, and whose only aim in life was to kill and to maim, so how can there ever be any equivalence? How can we talk about amnesties, when our armed forces were operating under the rule of law and under the law?
I want to refer quickly to two cases. I will not mention the names, because they may well be sub judice, but I want to illustrate my concerns. First, the leader of a small patrol went into a village after a shooting incident the day before. The platoon had come under fire. A small patrol of four soldiers went into the village in a follow-up operation after an arms find. A suspicious individual was challenged but did not respond. All four members of the patrol opened fire and that person was killed. It was actually a tragic case of mistaken identity. It was fully investigated at the time by the military police and the RUC. All the evidence was pulled together. The rifles and the rounds were subject to forensic examination. After a period of months, all four members of the patrol were completely exonerated and no further action was required or taken.
We fast-forward to 2012. Under the PSNI investigation under the Historical Enquiries Team, the corporal major who had commanded that patrol was asked to go to Northern Ireland to be questioned, which he did. It was explained to him that there was no new evidence and that the existing evidence had disappeared—the rifles had long since been thrown away or whatever, and the forensic evidence was no longer available. After four days of very polite questioning, he was told that there would be no case to answer. He asked whether he could get on with his life and go back to his family and was told that he could. Fast-forward three more years and there was a knock on the door. Eighteen officers arrested him and took him to Northern Ireland. He has now been charged with attempted murder—I will not go into any more details because he has been charged.
I went to a veterans dinner last weekend at the Royal Anglian Regiment. There were more than 100 people at the dinner. Every single person who came up to me said, “What is going on? Can we not do something about this? Many of us live in fear.” In a speech given that evening, a former regimental sergeant major gave an example from Londonderry in 1972 that illustrates the difficulties that our soldiers faced, the fear they were up against and the appalling decisions that had to be taken on the spur of the moment.
In this second case, soldiers went into the crowd to snatch a demonstrator who had been throwing rocks and bricks at the police and soldiers. They snatched the demonstrator and the crowd became inflamed. The company of soldiers turned around and started moving backwards. One of the soldiers was hit on the back of the head by a rock. In those days, the helmets were not as effective as they are now and he fell down with a cracked skull. The crowd surged forward and were about to lynch him. My constituent and four other soldiers opened fire on the crowd and killed an individual. That was fully investigated at the time. It was found that they were operating under the yellow card or yellow book but that incident is now being reinvestigated. No fewer than 10 people at that dinner now fear they are among the 284 Northern Ireland veterans, men in their 70s and 80s, who may well get the knock on the door as by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks said.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for what he is sharing with us, which is the reality of the situation. Does he agree, however, that it is not just about the veterans attending that dinner? It is about the young men and women who are looking in on what is happening, considering joining our armed forces and doing what many of us have done in the past—stepping up to the plate and serving the flag and the country. Might they just think again about serving this country if there is a prospect that they might face prosecution if they seek to defend themselves, the public and their comrades?
I thank my right hon. Friend—I will call him a Friend—who makes an incredibly important point. At that dinner, a number of former members of the Royal Anglian Regiment made the point that they were trying to encourage and recruit young people. Can they really do that when those people might go into a theatre of war and act in accordance with orders, the law of armed conflict or the law of the land, but be arrested many years hence?
I do not know what the answer to this dilemma is, but I do know that very many people out there are incredibly angry and very worried, and they are looking to this Government to come up with constructive, innovative and workable solutions. If we do not do that, we will not be forgiven in a hurry.
Thank you, Sir Lindsay, for calling me in this debate. This is a deeply personal issue on which I have worked for some time. I welcome the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend Sir Michael Fallon.
I am cognisant that there are real issues with what has been put forward—I do not dispute that for a minute—but I echo what my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning said. If I was still a soldier watching this place, or if I was a veteran watching this place, I could not help but go away thinking that this place still—still—simply does not get it when it comes to what we owe those who have served.
This issue is nothing to do with some of the things that have been mentioned tonight. There has been a crassness to the terminology at times. I in no way speak of the Chair of the Defence Committee, because we have been tumbling around these terms and I would understand that from him, but there is the idea that we have conflated the idea of an amnesty with that of a statute of limitations. They are fundamentally and critically different, yet they have been interposed as if this is some sort of game or legal language that we have to get around to ensure we do right by our servicemen and women.
That is exactly what I am talking about.
Before I came to this place—I have spoken about it before, so this will not be a shock to anyone—I really struggled with the inauthenticity I saw from both the Government and Opposition Dispatch Boxes. Incidents such as the one that has just been referred to serve to highlight that. Up and down the country, there are people watching this who are veterans of Northern Ireland, of Afghanistan, like me, and of Iraq. They will be thinking, “Have these guys got my back? Do they really get it when they can’t even get the terms right? Does that give me the confidence that the Government will apply themselves to ending this ridiculous charade of prosecuting our soldiers? I’m afraid it does not.”
What happens to the amendments after I have finished speaking is up to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks, but I have to lodge again my profound and personal disquiet with the Government’s policy. I feel a personal shame with regard to the historical allegations issue. I feel that I am part of a Government who are essentially promoting a cowards’ charter when it comes to looking after our servicemen and women. My right hon. Friend talked about how he made a political decision to close the Iraq Historical Allegations Team. I worked on that issue for a year before he did that. Every single civil servant and lawyer in his Department told him it could not be done, but he took the executive political decision that he was elected to make and closed it. We need some of that political courage to be brought to the issue in relation to Northern Ireland.
I apologise for intervening because, characteristically, my hon. Friend is making a very good speech. We serve together on the Defence Committee, which is now looking into this matter. We heard at today’s Defence questions that the Ministry of Defence is now looking into this matter, too. Does he agree that we are not going to give up on this? We are going to keep coming back debate after debate, motion after motion. We are going to harry the Government, on behalf of the veterans, until they do the right thing and provide protection for those who protected us.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. I must say that when I started the process on IHAT, I found it a pretty lonely experience. That has now changed significantly. There are people in the Chamber who have campaigned on the Northern Ireland issue for a long time and it is deeply heartening to see the support this issue has got, certainly among Conservative Members. I thank him and others who have been here for much longer than me who have provided me with that support; vice versa, I have given any support that I have been able to give.
The problems with this process are so well known. It is late and I do not want to send everyone to sleep by going into them, but this process does not work for anybody. It does not work for the soldiers who are being investigated or for the families in finding out what has happened. The idea that it does is, I am afraid, for the birds.
We have heard from other hon. Members who have been to veterans’ dinners and so on, and I find it very difficult at the moment to see some of my old friends. They often asked me after IHAT when I thought that this process would stop. If I am honest, I thought that it would stop when we saw pensioners going to court. I thought that something in the British psyche would say, “This is not an acceptable way to treat our servicemen and women,” but it did not stop there. I still question when it will stop and whether this Prime Minister, or any other members of the Cabinet, understand that if they do not do anything, this will never end. It will never end for our servicemen and women unless somebody shows just an ounce of the courage that we asked our servicemen and women to show in Northern Ireland by gripping this process and bringing it to a close.
What will that take? The Defence Secretary made another announcement today which, of course, I welcome. The fact that I suggested it two years ago when we wound up IHAT is irrelevant, but we cannot keep going round and round in circles and, every time that this comes up, act as though we are surprised that the issue of prosecuting soldiers has arisen. Again, veterans up and down the country are watching these proceedings on television. I congratulate the Secretary of State on today’s announcement, but this has not just started. It has been coming for years, and what I find so deeply frustrating and shameful, sometimes, about being part of this team is that two years ago, when the IHAT process finished, all the abuses were laid out for everybody to see. We aired all our dirty washing, but still nobody gripped the issue until we saw a couple of our pensioners going to court. I am afraid that we cannot govern like this if we are to retain our credibility.
We have heard about a lot of incidents and individual stories tonight but, in closing, I just reiterate that no other country on earth does this to its servicemen and women. Yes, it was 70 years ago, but this country—Britain—stood alone and the military essentially got us the freedoms and privileges that we enjoy. There is no doubt that this project—this country of ours—exists only because young men and women are prepared to join up to fight and defend this country. I do not have the words to express the utter betrayal—by this place and, currently, this Government—of those who have served, and I want to see it end.
I will respond briefly to the debate because I sense that the Committee wants to decide what to do about the amendments. We have had a very good debate in which strongly held views have been expressed. While there may be disagreement about the precise provisions of the amendments, there is no disagreement in this House about the problem: the moral equivalence that is now being extended by the process of historical investigation between the terrorist and the servant of the state. There is no disagreement that we are now clearly in breach of our own armed forces covenant, and there is no disagreement that the deepest unfairness of all is the reopening of cases that have already been investigated when those involved have been told that no further action will be taken.
I understand that our colleagues from Northern Ireland do not support the precise wording of the amendments, which is one of the reasons why, very reluctantly, I will not press them to a Division. They do, however, support the direction of travel, and I hope that they will continue to work with us on the principle of some form of limitation for those cases that have already been investigated.
Like my hon. Friend Johnny Mercer, I welcome today’s initiative by the Ministry of Defence and the consultation to which the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland referred, but I would give her this warning, which echoes what has been said in the debate: the House will not now rest on this matter. She said that the Bill was the wrong vehicle, and that might well be the case, but it is for the Government now to find the right vehicle so that we act on the views expressed tonight and see, finally, that justice is done for those who served to protect us.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand pat of the Bill.
Clauses 2 to 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedules 1 to 2 agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill reported, without amendment.
Bill read the Third time and passed.