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Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 21st October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Conservative 5:30 pm, 21st October 2019

My Lords, I begin by expressing my support for our Prime Minister, who is facing the Herculean task of ensuring that we leave the EU with a deal. The sooner we can draw a line under this and move forward, the sooner we can return to addressing other important domestic issues that have had to be neglected in the wake of the Brexit debate.

I very much welcomed this sentence in the Queen’s Speech:

My Government remains committed to working with all parties in Northern Ireland… to address the legacy of the past”.

I pay tribute to all those who helped bring about the Northern Ireland peace process. I am aware of the huge effort and the immensely difficult compromises that this entailed.

However, I regret that there was no clause in the Queen’s Speech initiating a Bill to protect those former soldiers who have served in Northern Ireland. No one is above the law, but there must now be legislation to protect those whose selfless service has been to uphold the law. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to action on this issue. It is quite wrong that our veterans are subjected to the threat of repeated investigations and potential prosecution in connection with historical operations many years after the events in question. When I served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the article of faith was that if we did the right thing and followed the rules of engagement, the system would always back us up. This was essential in inspiring confidence.

I have raised the case of former Life Guards Corporal Major Dennis Hutchings several times in this House. I declare an interest in that I served with him in this country and overseas, and I can confirm that he was an exemplary soldier. He has been committed for trial in a Crown Court in Belfast on a charge of grievous bodily harm with intent and attempted murder. The Northern Ireland DPP recently permitted the trial by jury of Ivor Bell, accused of an IRA killing, but prevented Dennis from having a jury trial. This cannot be fair.

The Supreme Court has now set a precedent in Dennis’s case. Any future trials of service personnel will take place without a jury. Many members of my regiment, the Life Guards, believe this to be a grave injustice and that scrutiny has been applied to the security forces in a way that has not been insisted on for others. I am also concerned that effective legal help is not being given to all ex-servicemen for non-High Court inquests and coroners cases, as these can lead to prosecution. Do the Government really want to see these loyal former servicemen sent to prison? I cannot believe that they do. In light of these words in the Queen’s Speech:

“My Ministers will honour the Armed Forces Covenant”,

can the Minister give me an assurance that the Government will introduce the comprehensive legislation to protect these ex-servicemen without any further delay?