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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:25 pm on 20th May 2019.

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Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Conservative, Wells 6:25 pm, 20th May 2019

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no equivalence whatever. Whether the other side can now be investigated again or not, it is simply unreasonable, wrong, immoral and a breakdown of our covenant with our armed forces that we allow the investigation of those who have served to continue.

My hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart gave an amazing speech, in which he reflected that there was a time when his blokes thought that he had thrown them under the bus because they were required to go to court. It was clear from his speech the pain that he felt having to look his soldiers in the eye and break that news to them. I suspect that if those soldiers were watching you, Colonel, this afternoon they would have been proud to see someone take the responsibilities of command so seriously years after their watch is done. I found that very powerful.

All of us who have had the great privilege of carrying a commission in Her Majesty’s armed forces, and to have had command of soldiers, sailors and airmen, will relate strongly to the pain that my hon. and gallant Friend so clearly felt. Even now, in another career many years later, we feel we are letting our riflemen, guardsmen and private soldiers down. That is what motivates us all to be here.

The first time I was involved in any such process was in Kabul in 2005, about a year after I had been commissioned. We had been involved in the use of lethal force following a double vehicle-borne suicide bombing. Throughout the afternoon and evening that followed, and overnight as we stood on the perimeter, we went back through everything we did and thought tactically whether we did the right thing. When we got in the next morning, having been relieved, and the first thing we got was a date with the Royal Military Police’s special investigations branch, I was pretty close to throwing punches. But I understand that is a necessary part of applying lethal force on the battlefield. We are trained to live and operate by a higher standard, and we should have nothing to fear when the investigation starts immediately on the back of the application of force like that.

Two years later in Basra, and two years after that in Sangin, that process was commonplace—in Sangin, as a battalion adjutant in the most contested Herrick tour and battle space, I was responsible for an awful lot of initial investigation processes. The immediate debrief could not be accurate, because adrenalin was still coursing through the veins of the riflemen who had been involved. They were emotional because, very often, their friends had lost their legs or had been killed in the very same mission. There was confusion about what had happened because the fog of war was all around them. As they relayed their individual testimonies about what had happened that afternoon, night or morning, often that did not match up with the testimony of the rifleman who had stood immediately next to them, fighting the same contact.

In the process of that investigation, the company second-in-command drafts a report and comes up to the adjutant, who has a look at it; he then goes to the brigade and the legal adviser looks at it, and the special investigations branch has a look at it. Meanwhile, that rifleman would have been deployed on three, four, five, six or seven more patrols in the following seven days, in which there would have been more kinetic activity in which they would have applied lethal force, and on the back of which there would have been more reports by the company’s second-in-command, coming up to the adjutant and so on and so forth. Very quickly, all the details of those missions start to mesh into one—so much so that we had riflemen go to the coroner’s hearings six or nine months or a year after a tour and not recognise the contemporary report of what happened that night when they applied lethal force.

I make that point because days or a year after, those servicemen cannot remember exactly what happened—it is a natural part of how we deal with our mental health to seek to delete and overwrite. How on earth can we turn round to them decades later and replay to them accurate reports made at the time as part of the evidence against, and ask them to account for themselves to try to establish their innocence once again? Some of us have had that moment when a threat is perceived—in a split second we have to decide whether to apply lethal force because our life or the life of another is in danger.