Before I call Mr Francois to ask his urgent question, I remind right hon. and hon. Members that, under the House’s long-standing resolution on matters sub judice, they must not make reference to individual cases currently before the courts.
I begin with an apology because, as everybody will no doubt have observed by now, I am not the Secretary of State for Defence—I don’t have her hair. I wanted to explain why there has been some toing and froing since the terms of the urgent question became clear in the last hour.
I am here because we have concluded, at least for the moment, that it would be better that I try to respond to my right hon. Friend’s question about soldiers serving in Northern Ireland—obviously the Northern Ireland Office addresses that directly—particularly because the rules were different when soldiers were serving in Northern Ireland. They were there in support of the police and in support of civil powers, which forms a different legal basis than the one that applies if they are fighting abroad in other kinds of conflict. I shall endeavour to be as helpful as I can to my right hon. Friend; if he has any remaining questions he wants to address, I will be happy to follow through with him later, but let me at least try to respond to the burden of his urgent question as it was asked.
I strongly agree, as I suspect that all Members on both sides of the House will strongly agree, that my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the current system—the current situation—in Northern Ireland is not working properly for people on all sides. It is clearly unsupportable and it is unfair in many ways. If a former soldier or a former police officer—perhaps now in their 70s—is concerned about being pursued through the courts for events that happened 30 or 40 years ago, that is a constant worry to them, their family and their friends. Equally, a family member of a victim of republican terrorists in a case where the perpetrators were never brought to justice has a feeling of great worry and concern, and has difficulty moving on. That concern affects people on all sides of the community in Northern Ireland, and my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that it has to be addressed.
It is for that reason that not just the Government but—I think I am right in saying—parties on both sides of the House and right the away across Northern Ireland believe that a new approach is vital if we are to put this right. That was why the original Stormont House agreement was announced some years ago, and it is why most recently we have been consulting on how to take this forward. We received more than 17,000 responses to the consultation, which shows the depth, breadth and intensity of concern about the current situation. We have now pretty much finished going through those responses. Some trends are starting to emerge, and we will of course bring them to the House as soon as we decently and responsibly can.
One thing is clear to everybody: everyone agrees on the aim. The difficulty is that, 30 or 40 years after some of the events of the troubles, we need a process that, while having a judicial element, is broader than just judicial. It must allow all sides of the community in Northern Ireland to establish the truth, where it can be established, be fair to all sides, and allow people—society as a whole—to draw a line and move on.
While comparisons cannot be exact, because the situation in Northern Ireland is unlike anything else on the planet, this has been done in other societies. One famous example, of course, is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Clearly that would not work precisely in Northern Ireland, but it is essential that we find an equivalent process that aims at the same outcome of allowing people to feel that justice is being achieved with the truth established, wherever it can be, so that closure can be achieved for all sides on an equal basis wherever possible. That matters particularly for soldiers and police officers who served in Northern Ireland, but also for the families and grieving loved ones of victims.
I will endeavour to respond to my right hon. Friend’s further questions—I am sure he has many—but I hope that helps to set the scene.
I am very grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question. There has been a great deal of media speculation over the last week about what the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Office want to do, yet no information has been given to the House. I sought this UQ to try to achieve some clarity—we will see how we get on, Sir.
The Secretary of State for Defence gave a very confident and front-footed speech at the Royal United Services Institute yesterday. I was in the audience and it was an excellent speech. She mentioned her intention to try to provide legal protection particularly for veterans who had served in the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have seen articles in The Times and elsewhere to that effect, but thus far I am afraid we have had no specific details. If press reports are accurate, the MOD is aiming at something along the lines of a statute of limitations, taking force perhaps 10 years after a conflict has ended, after which no prosecution would be possible unless exceptional or compelling evidence were to come forward.
If that is the case, the Defence Secretary would be honouring the Conservative party’s 2017 manifesto—that would make a nice change—which reads:
“We will protect our brave armed forces personnel from persistent legal claims, which distress those who risk their lives for us, cost the taxpayer millions and undermine the armed forces”.
That is plain as a pikestaff, and if she is to do it, well and good, but we would like more details.
I will explain one reason why this is so pressing, in terms of the persecution of Iraq veterans. The MOD set up the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, which spent years looking into these cases, but unfortunately it became a racket. Several law firms—particularly the ironically named Public Interest Lawyers, led by an appalling man called Phil Shiner—trawled Iraq to encourage people to come forward and make false allegations. Basically, they made some of it up. That all came out in a court case when the trial collapsed after they admitted that they had fabricated evidence. My hon. Friend Johnny Mercer—a fellow member of the Defence Committee—then conducted a Sub-Committee inquiry into IHAT, which proved so shocking that the then Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend Sir Michael Fallon, shut the team down. I am sure that the whole House would agree that we must never do that again.
Turning to Northern Ireland, the Minister—I have a great deal of time for him, but perhaps slightly less time for his Department—rightly said that the NIO, under the Stormont House agreement, agreed with the parties in Northern Ireland to establish so-called legacy institutions to look into the past. The NIO’s interpretation of that means that it will set up some form of commission that will go back 50 years to 1968-69 and re-examine every fatality since—some 3,500 cases. Any serviceman or member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, George Cross, who fired a fatal shot will therefore be reinvestigated. However, the alleged terrorists will not because, under the Good Friday agreement, Tony Blair gave them so-called letters of comfort, which mean that they are immune from prosecution. No alleged terrorist who was given one of those letters has been successfully prosecuted. The nearest we came was with the alleged Hyde Park bomber, but when he produced his letter of comfort in court, the judge abandoned the trial and declared an abuse of process. The entire process will be utterly one-sided, because service personnel and members of the RUC GC will be liable to prosecution, while those with letters of comfort get off scot-free.
After the appalling, tragic events in Londonderry, we all want the Northern Ireland Executive re-established—of course we do—but that cannot come at the price of some rancid, backstairs deal between the NIO and Sinn Féin-IRA that sells Corporal Johnny Atkins down the river. Up with that, I believe, this House will not put. We have a moral duty to defend those who defended us, and we abrogate that duty if, for reasons of political convenience, we allow the scapegoating of our veterans to pander to terrorists.
I want to ask the Minister six very specific questions—
Order. The challenge for the right hon. Gentleman is to do so before he reaches six minutes. He is brilliant, but he is no more addicted to brevity than I am.
We are both addicts, Mr Speaker.
First, while I know that the Ministry of Defence is not the Minister’s Department, will he give us some indication of when the MOD will provide the House with more details of its proposals? Secondly, when will the NIO publish the response to the consultation on legacy issues to which the Minister referred? Thirdly, will the Minister confirm that a Bill will be required to set up the legacy institutions—or, as I call them, IHAT mark II? Fourthly, what discussions have taken place between NIO Ministers and civil servants, and Sinn Féin-IRA, and is there any truth in the rumours that they have demanded the continued investigation of British veterans as the price of re-entering the Executive? Fifthly, when will the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland come to the House to make an oral statement to update us so that Members can question her in detail about the NIO’s proposals?
Sixthly, and lastly, what would the Minister say to former Royal Marine David Griffin, aged 78, whom I met on Monday? He is being reinvestigated for a shooting in 1972 for which he was investigated, and completely cleared, at the time? If he wants to discuss the matter with Mr Griffin in person, would he be kind enough to go down to the Royal Hospital Chelsea, because that is where he now lives?
I will endeavour to respond to those six points, but may I begin by saying that I am sure that my right hon. Friend speaks for everybody in this House—he certainly speaks for me—when he says that we will have no rancid political deals here? That is not acceptable. If we are going to ask people potentially to put their lives on the line by serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces anywhere in the world, we need to make sure that we do the right thing by them when they have done the right thing by their country. As somebody who has served and who understands the importance of military discipline, my right hon. Friend will know that that is not unqualified, because there are rules within the armed forces. However, provided that people have adhered to those rules, we in this place, on both sides of the aisle, and more broadly across society, owe something in return, so there absolutely will be no rancid political deals on my watch, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be absolutely certain to make sure that that will not happen more broadly.
Before I come to my right hon. Friend’s six questions, may I put him right on a couple of other things? On his point about whether or not the Secretary of State announced a statute of limitations or an intention to move towards one, he is right that the details have not yet been fully put out. I understand that there will be a consultation with more details attached to it. Some press reports are talking about a presumption of non-prosecution rather than a statute of limitations; we will have to wait and see.
My right hon. Friend’s first question was about when the MOD will publish details. I am afraid that I cannot answer that as a Northern Ireland Office Minister. I imagine it will want to move forward fairly briskly, but to get a categorical answer, I am afraid he will have to raise that point either privately or at the next Defence questions.
My right hon. Friend also made a point about the letters of comfort that were issued by a previous Government. I reassure him and other Members that legal reports have been issued on those letters since the cases that he mentioned saying that they are not an amnesty from prosecution. If a case can be made, letters of comfort will not in future be body armour against prosecution—[Interruption.] He is right to say that we will have to wait and see how that plays out when or if one of the cases comes to court, but that is the latest and strongest legal situation.
My right hon. Friend asked when we will publish the responses to the consultation. We have received 17,000 responses, and the answer is as soon as we decently can. We are very nearly there. It has taken a very long time to go through those responses. As I am sure that everybody will appreciate, they came from people with stories of tragedy to tell, so they needed to be gone through with a degree of respect and care, as I am sure that everyone would expect. It has taken some time to go through the process properly and to honour the reasons why people wrote in. We are very nearly there and we will bring them forward as soon as we decently can.
My right hon. Friend asked whether a Bill would be required to put new legacy arrangements in place as and when we come up with proposals. The answer is almost certainly yes, so the House will have an opportunity for full scrutiny according to the usual process—I suspect that that was why he asked the question. Everybody will have a chance to ask detailed questions about how this thing is being put together—
To vote on it, and to confirm the important point, on which my right hon. Friend and I agree, that no rancid deals have been done.
My right hon. Friend asked whether Sinn Féin-IRA, as he characterised them, demanded a price in the talks. Not to my knowledge at all, but I think that goes back to his point about no rancid deals.
My right hon. Friend asked when the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would make a statement on our plans. I think the answer to that is as soon as we have had a chance to discuss the issue in detail with different parties, both in Northern Ireland and here. I hope all Members will understand that while there is agreement on the direction and the outcome that everybody wants, the details matter hugely. He gave examples of real concerns about the initial set of Stormont agreement proposals for dealing with legacy. He could have given examples about other concerns. We have to deal with those and come up with proposals that work in detail and that have acceptance from all sides of the community in Northern Ireland. It is worth everybody’s while to take a little bit of extra time now to get the details right to come up with a process that everyone can live with, and to do the detailed design work—the pre-legislative scrutiny, if you like—so that we get that essential work right. The answer, therefore, is as soon as we decently can, but given the sensitivities involved and the precision required to come up with a process that, after decades, will stand the test of time and of warring views within Northern Ireland society, I hope my right hon. Friend will understand that we need something that is robust and put together with enormous care.
The Minister rightly began by talking about victims—those who were killed, those who were killed unlawfully—and the families of those victims, who all these years on still seek truth and to know what has happened to their loved ones. As a matter of record, which I know the Minister will confirm, the overwhelming majority of the killings that took place in Northern Ireland were committed by paramilitaries, republican or loyalist—
I am happy to join the right hon. Gentleman in using that word. Therefore, by definition, those were illegal and in need of investigation, where there can be no bar because of the passage of time. Every serving soldier swears an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, to
“observe and obey all orders of Her Majesty, Her heirs and successors and of the generals and officers set over me.”
It should be axiomatic that when a soldier has obeyed those Queen’s regulations and acted within the orders set out, that individual soldier should be protected from vexatious attacks—that is legitimate whether in foreign fields or in the context of Northern Ireland. But I have to say to the Minister, and I am not sure he wants to disagree with me on this, that it is very hard for me to recognise that when a soldier has broken that solemn oath of allegiance to the Queen—a solemn oath to uphold our laws—and wilfully broken it, leading to the death of individuals, that should be put beyond time for investigation. We have to be very clear in this House that investigating the most serious crimes, where death has taken place, we have to be resolute and absolute in saying there can be no statute of limitations. Crime is crime. Murder is murder, and we need to establish as a House, as a nation, that our principles uphold the rule of law and uphold not simply our international obligations, but our moral obligations.
In that context, can the Minister confirm specifically that the Police Service of Northern Ireland now—and any other investigatory body—will, by law, be enjoined to investigate those most serious crimes, whether committed by republican terrorists, loyalist terrorists or those in the police service or the Army who wilfully have broken our laws? That is the important distinction. The important distinction is between protection from vexatious claims for those who legitimately carried out the Queen’s orders—that is right and proper and we should establish that—and no protection for those who wilfully broke our laws.
I think the hon. Gentleman is making a central and uncontroversial point, but we need to be very careful in how we approach it. He has to be right that outright crimes such as murder must be pursued, and be pursued even-handedly. In defence of my right hon. Friend Mr Francois, I should say that I do not think he is suggesting anything else.
As I was saying earlier, military discipline means that the duty we all owe to members of Her Majesty’s armed forces is not an unqualified one—there are limits to it for people who may have failed to follow the orders they were given or failed to act in the right way. But we need to be careful about being resolutely even-handed about it. One of the many difficulties that many people have about the situation currently in Northern Ireland is that it is extremely difficult to mount effective investigations into many of these deaths. The hon. Gentleman rightly said that the majority of the deaths that occurred originated from republican terrorists, and it is therefore difficult in many cases to find enough evidence to make those cases stand up in court. It is not necessarily a question of prosecuting authorities not trying to be even-handed; they have to be able to follow evidence that is available to them and see whether or not there is a decent case.
The fact remains that the Government are a great deal better at maintaining records 30 or 40 years later than perhaps the IRA was at all. It is therefore extremely difficult to pursue some cases, which is one of the major reasons—it may not be the only one—why, to many eyes, the ratio of prosecutions is as skewed as I think the hon. Gentleman was trying to suggest. That is the concern that people have, but I can reassure him, as I am sure everybody else present would, that it has to be everybody’s intention to pursue cases for which there is evidence on a completely even-handed basis. We obviously need to make sure that we deal with all the others, too, which is why we have to have a process that is broader than just a judicial one and that allows people to get to the truth, in so far as it ever can be reached at this late stage, to move on with their lives and to draw a line under a pretty terrible series of episodes in Northern Ireland’s past.
The simple answer to that is that the analysis is only just starting to emerge now, and I have not seen it broken down in the way that my right hon. Friend describes, so I am afraid I cannot give him a factual answer. Once the results are out, I am sure people will pore over them and we may then be able to come up with an answer. I apologise that I cannot come up with a solid factual answer to my right hon. Friend at the moment.
We acknowledge the challenges that come with military service. We do need to be sensitive to those challenges and to recognise the volatile circumstances that came with serving in Northern Ireland during the troubles, but nobody is above the law. The Good Friday agreement remains incredibly important today, and we have a duty to defer to the frameworks underneath it. When he was Prime Minister, David Cameron gave a formal apology for the events of Bloody Sunday. He said:
“What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 511, c. 739.]
I suggest that, having acknowledged that, it is reasonable that we determine whether—whether—anyone is culpable of criminality for the events of Bloody Sunday. Are the Government committed to ensuring that those who lost loved ones, on all sides of the conflict, have the means to pursue both justice and truth?
The straightforward answer to that last question is yes, and I do not think there is any disagreement, on either side of the House, about that central aim. The question, of course—I think this is inherent in what the hon. Lady asked—is about the details of how. Once we have had a chance to announce to the House the results of the consultation, we will need to start work on the detailed reactions to that consultation, in order to formulate a Bill that will be acceptable to deliver what we are talking about in a way that works for all sides of the community in Northern Ireland.
On the point about Bloody Sunday cases, the hon. Lady will of course be aware that the Director of Public Prosecutions recently announced, having reviewed all the various different cases, that all but one of them will not be taken forward. There is not enough evidence for any sort of reasonable prospect of a prosecution, so all but one of them have been withdrawn.
I completed seven tours in Northern Ireland, all with the infantry or associated units. I lost many men and I was involved in fatality shootings. I was investigated, along with others. The investigations were thorough, aggressive and bloody awful to go through. When the investigations were completed, we sometimes had to go to court to prove that we had acted in accordance with the yellow card. In 1978, I told two soldiers who were with me that because they had been to court and been proved innocent and had acted within the law, they would never, ever be asked to do such a thing again. How the hell can our Government allow such people possibly to be investigated again?
My hon. and gallant Friend speaks with huge authority given his personal background and experience in the armed forces. I think the whole House understands that the examples that he has just given are a specific and very good illustration of my earlier comments in response to the initial question of my right hon. Friend Mr Francois about why the current situation is not working properly for anybody. We need to get to a point where, unless there is some brand new and credible piece of evidence that changes the situation, but in most cases that is not the case—
Exactly so. Unless there is something that is brand new and that was not available at the time—in the vast majority of cases that is not the case—then at that point people should be entitled to consider that they do not have to face further pursuance through the court. Therefore, my point is that we must get this sorted and sorted soon, and we must come up with a process that works for all the different sides of the equation, as I laid out in my initial response. I guess what I am saying is that we are in violent agreement on this. My hon. and gallant Friend illustrates forcefully and accurately why the current situation is not acceptable and cannot be allowed to stand.
I thank the Minister for his response so far. Will he explain the fundamental difference between soldiers following orders in uniform in Afghanistan and Iraq and soldiers following orders in uniform in Northern Ireland, other than a drive by militant republicans to rewrite history to make it seem as if their bloodlust against Captain Nairac and the three Scottish soldiers and all those other men and women slaughtered by evil people was in some way acceptable? We must have equal treatment for all who have served in Army uniform wherever it was, or is, in the world.
May I start by saying that I certainly agree with the underlying premise of the hon. Gentleman’s point, which is that we need to make sure that we are doing the right thing by our armed forces? The difficulty lies with the legal underpinnings. The legal difference between soldiers serving abroad versus soldiers serving in Northern Ireland in support of the police is important. It means that our route to arriving at the goal that he wants to get us to, and that I want to get us to, has to be a different one. Let me take a specific case in point: people who suggest that we should have some kind of a statute of limitations for forces that have been serving abroad need to realise that if we try to do that in the UK, that statute of limitations, according to human rights law, would have to apply to all sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland letters of comfort, as I have already said, do not stop prosecutions under the latest legal guidance. Therefore, we have to come up with something that gets us to the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to illustrate, but it must have a different legal foundation to it. I wish it were simpler. I wish that it were not the case, but it is and we have to take the world as we find it. That should be an explanation about why it is hard, but not a satisfactory justification for not trying and not getting there, and not getting there soon.
May I say to the Minister of State that I have every sympathy with his position at the Dispatch Box? I did exactly the same and had exactly the same advice, which was fundamentally wrong, when I was in the Northern Ireland Office as well as in the Ministry of Defence. Like many colleagues, I served in Northern Ireland. When I came back, I was given a general service medal. I was on operations. To us, peacekeeping there was no different to peacekeeping anywhere else in the world. That is what British Army soldiers do. To stand here and say that there is a legal difference between a soldier going on ops in Iraq, Cyprus or anywhere else in the world and a soldier going on ops in Northern Ireland is fundamentally wrong, and I challenged and challenged and challenged that advice. How on earth have we got into this position where we will not defend our own soldiers because of some technicality that we were not on ops? We were on ops and we were defending the public and our guys were killed. I will not have terrorists mentioned in the same breath as British soldiers.
I could not agree more. My right hon. Friend rightly points out that he has stood in my shoes on this issue. I am sure he is absolutely right that, to anybody serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces—whether they served in peacekeeping operations or not, and whether they served in Northern Ireland or in other parts of the world—the practical effect will feel the same.
As my right hon. Friend rightly points out, he was given a medal for it. The only point on which I would pull him up is that, although the practical effect may feel the same, the legal underpinnings—again, I appreciate that he contested this—are different. Although we may wish that were not so, it is so. Therefore, we have to come up with something that will withstand legal challenge. As my right hon. Friend for Rayleigh and Wickford rightly pointed out, there are people out there who will try to knock legal holes in any answer that we come up with unless it is legally robust. We have to acknowledge the legal difference and find an answer that works, even though we are trying to get to the same answer in each case. If we cannot do that, we may come up with something that sounds great when we announce it, but which will get legal holes knocked in it; and that would mean that we were not protecting our veterans in the way in which everybody here wants us to do.
I represent Darlington, which is the nearest large town to Catterick garrison, so there are many hundreds of veterans living in my constituency. None of them has ever asked or expected to be treated differently or as if they were above the law in any situation, but there is deep concern about this issue. There is also deep concern in the wider community that individual soldiers may be held responsible for failings that they alone do not own—that a lack of preparedness, or a lack of understanding or anticipation of the context in which they would be serving at the time, may have led to certain things happening that those individuals could be held responsible for. That is a real and deep worry. Will the Minister assure me that individual veterans in my constituency will not be held responsible for actions that they alone are not responsible for?
That is precisely why we need to come up with these proposals as fast as we can. It is clear from both sides of the House that the time for action is now—well, it was probably several years ago actually—and that this situation cannot be allowed to persist. The hon. Lady’s example is only one of a spectrum of concerns, depending on which part of the community one talks to in Northern Ireland and who one talks to in the UK. However, that concern is absolutely valid and we cannot allow this situation to continue. We will come back to this as soon as it is decent to do so; and by “decent”, I mean when we have a chance of getting something that is practically going to work, rather than something that sounds good as a soundbite. We need to ensure that this thing works under legal challenge.
Is it not ironic that throughout the whole Brexit process we have been bending over backwards to treat Northern Ireland the same as the rest of the UK, and we are now about to treat Northern Ireland differently? I understand the sensitivities of the Good Friday agreement and the Stormont House agreement, but surely this can be sorted out with robust and strong leadership. I put it to the Minister that no other country in the world would treat their veterans in this way. He goes on about taking more time, and going through this and that. All this time, veterans—including in my constituency—are suffering.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I certainly did not want to imply that we are countenancing being leisurely about this. This situation has been wrong for many years. The only reason for not announcing something tomorrow—or, indeed, today or yesterday—is simply that we need to ensure that we have put all the answers from the consultation out and in front of the House, so people have a chance to work through the details and ask, “Alright, what does this mean in practice then?” We need to move as fast as we can, but it has to be as fast as we can in a way that is consistent with forging a consensus in Northern Ireland. We have to ensure that whatever answer we come up with sticks, survives and works for both sides of the community, otherwise it will come unravelled in the fullness of time and we will have failed to protect our veterans from the kind of problems that we have all heard about, and which I think everyone here agrees are absolutely unacceptable.
Mr Francois is quite right when he says that this question really ought to be answered by the Secretary of State for Defence, because it is her intervention that has left the Government with a policy that is totally lacking in any coherence.
Quite apart from the inconsistencies that others have highlighted, we are now, we understand from the Secretary of State for Defence, to disapply the European convention on human rights in this area. Is that Government policy that she speaks of, and if so, where does the Minister, as a Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office, think that leaves the Good Friday agreement?
Let me first address the right hon. Gentleman’s point about whether this is a matter for the Ministry of Defence or the Northern Ireland Office. He is of course right that the Ministry of Defence has a major, major stake in getting this right. As he would expect—as everybody would expect—the Secretary of State for Defence wants to make sure that this issue is dealt with as promptly as possible. The Ministry of Defence is not the only Department to have a stake, because clearly there are former police officers in Northern Ireland—members of the PSNI—who could also be vulnerable to such predatory legal attack, or whatever, and we need to make sure that they are properly dealt with too. He is right that the MOD is a vital part, but it is not all of it, and that is why the issue goes broader than just veterans of Her Majesty’s armed forces.
On human rights, as I said earlier, all we have to go on at the moment are the press reports and the outlines of the Secretary of State for Defence’s proposals. I did not see those as having—and I do not think she meant them to have—anything to do with contradicting human rights. It is clear that anything we come up with, if it is to be legally robust, has to be compliant with article 2 in human rights terms, because if we do not have a process that is compliant with article 2, we will have failed to protect our veterans, whether they are former members of the armed forces or former members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. If we fail to protect against proper legal challenge because we have designed a process that is not compliant with article 2, we will have failed in our duty and failed to deliver what everybody here, of all parties, wishes to achieve.
I understand that the Legacy Inquest Unit is powering through its work. May I urge the Minister to consider the timescale for inquests while considering what other bodies he is going to set up? May I also urge him to make sure that veterans are properly supported throughout the inquest process? To most people, an inquest looks like a court and smells like a court, and it is very important that they are helped through the process.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point about people facing current cases, regardless of whether we wish to design an alternative process that may mean in future many of them will not have to undergo the process, which I think everybody here agrees would be sensible where possible and appropriate. For those who have to do so, however, we absolutely need to make sure that there is proper legal support. As I said, I would regard that as absolutely part of the duty that we owe to our former soldiers and other members of our armed forces.
The Minister is speaking as though this issue has landed on him unexpectedly from a clear blue sky, but we are talking about events that happened 40 years ago, and much of it could have been predicted. Although of course we want malicious cases to be dismissed, will he confirm his exact policy on cases that may have some legitimacy but have already been tried and within which we would expect soldiers to be treated fairly?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that this issue has not landed on anybody’s desk in the Northern Ireland Office out of a clear blue sky—it has been taking up a very large proportion of everybody’s care and attention. It is probably fair to say that it was doing so under former Labour Governments as well as the current Government, and indeed the coalition Government. It is certainly not a new problem, and it has clearly defeated successive attempts to solve it. That is why we have to proceed as fast as possible, but with care.
With regard to people who have already faced cases, clearly we need to make sure that they are treated fairly within the law. Bearing in mind Mr Speaker’s earlier strictures, I probably should not comment on individual cases, but I am sure that everybody here would stand up for the notion that yes, clearly, everyone should be treated fairly within the law.
I deployed to Afghanistan twice and to Iraq and to Northern Ireland, all in quite quick succession. I can tell the Minister that I received operational training and operational kit. I carried operational rules of engagement. I received operational pay, and I received an operational medal for all four of those tours. The distinction that a soldier is aware of the legal premise on which they are deployed is not true—it is not fair, and it stinks. Troops do not get to choose whether they deploy on an operational tour because of the legal underpinning that the Government have chosen, and it is unreasonable to assert that now. We must limit their liability immediately.
I completely agree. I was trying to make this point in response to a couple of earlier questions, but let me have another crack at it. For members of Her Majesty’s armed forces serving on the ground, no matter where they are, if they are on similar kinds of operation, the practical effect and feel of those operations will be the same. My hon. Friend, who is my parliamentary neighbour in Somerset, is absolutely right to make that point. It is not an acceptable justification for inaction for any Government to say, “The legal basis is different, and therefore we cannot solve this.”
All I am saying is that the legal solution has to be different because the legal basis is different, even though soldiers may not care or worry about it. If we do not take that difference of legal basis into account, the answer we come up with will not work in protecting them. We want to protect them properly and successfully. If we do not, the first malicious prosecution that is mounted in a court and knocks a hole in it will show that our efforts have been in vain. My hon. Friend is right. This is an explanation of why it is different; it is not a justification for not acting, nor is it a justification for not succeeding in coming up with an identical outcome, even though it has to be based on different legal foundations.
Chester is a proud garrison city, and I am proud to represent ex-service and current service families, many of whom have raised their concerns with me. Their concerns are generally twofold. The first is that these seem to be arbitrary fishing investigations—and investigations are just as stressful as prosecutions. Secondly, Mr Francois talked about rancid deals. Of course there had to be a deal under the Good Friday agreement, but my constituents’ concern is clear: that deal should be applied equally and fairly to all sides.
“Equally and fairly to all sides” have to be our watch-words for the outcome of publishing the results of the consultation and the process of coming up with a Bill that works. It has to be equal and fair to both sides, otherwise it will not endure, it will not work, and it will not protect our forces in the way that we all want.
As the MP for Moray, I represent a large number of veterans, and I share their disgust at the way they have been treated by this Government. The Minister’s answers have been full, but when speaking about future legislation and the results of the consultation, he has said “soon”, “very quickly” and “shortly”. He has given no specific timeframe. When can my constituents and people across the United Kingdom expect to hear from the Government specific dates for the plans, to ensure that we can hold the Government to account on their promises?
I wish I could give my hon. Friend a specific date. We are trying to get through this as fast as we can. I hope he will understand that, with 17,000 responses, each telling a story of personal tragedy, we needed to ensure we were honouring the sense in which those were provided. Having worked through that, we need to move at pace, and we will endeavour to do so. I cannot give him a precise date today, but I will undertake to take back to the Department the very clear message from today, which is that we need to get on with this and move as fast as we can, but we need to ensure we are proceeding in a way that will endure and come up with a robust answer that, as we just heard, is fair and equal for all sides.
Like all Members here, I have veterans in my constituency who are very angry at the way this issue has been handled and extremely concerned about issues being dredged up from 20, 30 or 40 years ago in what they consider to be an unfair manner. There has been a lot of press speculation in recent days and mixed messages from the Government, which has only increased the anxiety that many veterans feel. Does the Minister understand the concern caused, as well as the need for clarity and certainty that it will be dealt with as quickly as possible?
The borough of Kettering is blessed with many veterans who served in Northern Ireland, and they are outraged by this process. The previous Labour Government issued letters of comfort to known terrorists, and now a Conservative Government are effectively threatening prosecution of veterans, many of whom have already faced court cases. The Minister says he has received legal advice from the Northern Ireland Office. Will he reassure the House that he is challenging that advice, not simply accepting it? He said that Sinn Féin is not pressing for these cases to be examined—he said he had no knowledge of that. Can he confirm 100% that Sinn Féin is not pressing for these veterans to be prosecuted as a condition of setting up the new Northern Ireland Executive?
I am not in that part of those talks, so I would not be able to tell my hon. Friend that one way or another. I can say, however—this returns to my earlier answer to my right hon. Friend Mr Francois—that rancid deals should have no part in how we treat our veterans in any case.
The best way for wounds to heal is to stop picking at the scabs, and we must stop treating Northern Ireland as “other”. Military police or civilians will have far greater confidence only when rules apply globally, and I see no merit in perpetrating the “otherness” of Northern Ireland. Rules should apply to our military police and civilians, whether in Basra or Belfast. The status of the unbalanced letters of comfort must be reviewed and clarified as they distort the arguments. The scales of justice must be able to balance, but those letters distort them beyond all chance of that happening.
I agree strongly that the scales of justice must be able to balance, and it is not just a question of balancing in one or two cases—they must balance for all cases, and be seen to balance by all sides. We are all here today because there is a widespread perception, on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland, that those scales are tilted for different reasons in different ways. My hon. Friend is right to make that point, and I remind him of my earlier answer on the letters of comfort. Those letters have now been reviewed, and the latest legal report states that they do not provide immunity from prosecution—
The difference is that, were a case to be brought tomorrow, those letters would not be a piece of legal body armour. It is important that we make that point, and I hope the message will go out loud and clear from the Chamber that anyone who thinks they can swan around scot-free as a result of that does not have the legal protection that some people may have thought they did.
The right hon. Gentleman is hovering—
Well, I am in a generous mood, so in recognition of the right hon. Gentleman’s military background and former leadership of his party, I think the House should indulge him.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, and I apologise that I came in when the Minister was already on his feet. I served in Northern Ireland and in what was then Rhodesia. I received a general service medal for one campaign, and a separate campaign medal for the other—as has been said, they were both operations. We were sent to Northern Ireland, and I lost friends, particularly Robert Nairac—I am sorry I was not here when he was mentioned. I do not know how I can honestly, and with a clean heart, say that my Government represent the best interests of ex-servicemen and women who have served their country. I simply state to the Minister this simple principle: when natural justice collides with the law, we change the law.
That has to be correct. That is why we are talking about bringing forward a Bill in this place to change the law in order to put this right. My right hon. Friend is also right to say—I think he is echoing the point made by my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend James Heappey—that for serving soldiers who get campaign or operation medals, whatever it may be, it feels the same whether or not the legal underpinning of the operation is different. We therefore have to come up with an Act of Parliament that ensures that protections are the same, even if they are arrived at through a different legal route. Either way, it absolutely and essentially has to be robust in the event of legal challenge, otherwise we will have failed in our duty to look after our veterans, no matter where they have served.
I think that is stretching the point. Points of order come later. Does the point of order relate to these—
Yes, but we have not had the statements yet. If the point of order appertained to these exchanges, then possibly—but no. Reference was made to the hon. Gentleman’s service earlier and I say for the benefit of those who are attending our proceedings in the House but are not Members that the confetti showered upon the hon. Gentleman on account of his long service was recognition of the fact that he was elected first to the House on