Immunity for Soldiers — [Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:16 pm on 20th May 2019.

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Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset 6:16 pm, 20th May 2019

It drives a tank through the Government’s case. My hon. Friend speaks with his characteristic verve and clarity. He is absolutely right: so it does.

To speak personally, my view over many years—I am 61; I served nine years in the Army, and I have been here for nine years—has been that politicians generally, although there are noble exceptions, all of whom are in the Chamber today, simply do not understand the armed services. They just do not get it. I have a huge amount of respect for the Minister, whom I know well; this comment or any I make are not aimed at him but at all Governments, as my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith said. What is the first thing that happens when a Government come to power and are short of power? They cut the armed services. That is intentional madness. The armed services are an insurance policy that require money to be invested in them. We hope that we do not have to use them but, in places such as Northern Ireland, we do.

If I recall this correctly, we had about 35,000 troops in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles. We would be pushed to mount an operation on a similar scale today. In fact, as has been said, it would probably be impossible. My message to the Government therefore concerns all those things we say about our armed forces. We repeatedly hear from politicians how they respect the armed forces covenant and all such things, in the Chamber and outside, but when it comes to the crunch, our armed forces are let down.

I will touch briefly on Royal Marine Al Blackman, whom I and many others managed to get out of jail after he had served only half his time. This example is similar to one given earlier. None of the circumstances in which that man was forced to operate—it was in the most appalling conditions in Afghanistan—was taken into account. It is easy for politicians for who have no experience of operational service to sit in an armchair with their gin and tonic and say, “I condemn that man or woman for what they did.” They fail to understand the total picture in which our brave men and women all too often serve.

Mention has been made of the yellow card. I, too, learned the yellow card. I recall—I hope that I have my old memory working—that one of our main concerns was the vehicle checkpoint. We were told, and this often happened, that young boys would challenge Army checkpoints. Young kids and teenagers, not related in any way to terrorism, would try to drive through our checkpoints for a laugh. We discussed that on many occasions—“How do we deal with that?” A car is coming at us at 50, 60 or 70 mph, we have one, two or three seconds to react, and we have a gun in our hands. We think, “Is this a terrorist? Is this a young boy fuelled by drink? Who is this guy?”, then bang, the car goes into the checkpoint, possibly killing or seriously injuring one of our soldiers or a member of the civilian population, and the car drives away. Are we allowed to shoot the person in that car then? The answer we all came to was no, because that person is no longer an immediate danger to us or to anyone else. Had someone been shot in that car, there would have been a kerfuffle, a court case, accusations of murder and all the rest of it.

This point about restraint has been made, but I make it again: those I served with, and the many others I served alongside, all showed restraint, in particular in riots or very dangerous areas. A soldier’s instinct, when going to someone in trouble, is to help; it is not to kill, or beat up. A number of times I saw my guardsmen go to the aid of those on both sides of the community, and as we built up a relationship, the number of cups of tea offered often increased a little, because most Irish people are decent. A few rotten apples, sadly, spoil the barrel.

I absolutely agree with everything that has been said by all right hon., hon. and gallant Friends so far. I urge the Government to stop doing what we do best, which is talking; that is over now. We cannot go on betraying our brave men and women; we tell them that they are brave, but when they come home, we sell them straight into a court, throwing them to the mercy of lawyers et al. That is not on. Finally, justice delayed is no justice at all.