27 Jan 2016 : Column 199WH

5.20 pm

Steven Paterson (Stirling) (SNP): I thank the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) securing today’s debate. It is crucial that we not only support our service personnel but uphold human rights and have the UK show leadership in promoting international human rights.

Our armed forces carry out a vital role on our behalf, often in harsh and dangerous conditions. Their courage and professionalism are to their immense credit. As part of that professionalism, our armed forces should and must be able to justify their decisions and actions against clearly defined standards of conduct. When allegations are made that conduct has not met the high standards expected by both society and the armed forces, they must be taken seriously. When there is a case to answer, the case must be investigated fully and fairly.

Since the inception of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, a number of issues have arisen that require consideration, as many speakers have touched on today. They include the scope of the investigations, the considerable volume of the case load, the amount of time that has passed in some of the incidents involved and concerns about the credibility and veracity of the allegations. Each of those issues presents challenges to IHAT and to us, who oversee it, in the dispensing of justice.

The latest figures that I have seen indicate that 1,514 allegations have been reported to IHAT, making up 1,329 cases. Of those, 43 have been closed and 57 dropped, with 280 UK veterans under investigation. It is only fitting and fair that we are concerned about the number of allegations and the speed of the investigations, and it is no surprise that many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), have raised that issue.

I understand that IHAT has about 150 staff, so in my view, it is reasonable to question the speed at which cases are being dealt with. Indeed, if I were a member of a committee scrutinising the issue, I would have serious questions for witnesses and would be pressing them on the apparently slow rate of progress and for a comparison with other legal jurisdictions.

I fully understand that we are talking about a unique situation in many respects, given the challenges in investigating allegations. However, the rate of progress is an issue. The hon. Member for Newbury raised the issue of trails going cold on some of the investigations. We need to address that and face the reality that in some—indeed, many—cases, it might not be possible to get the evidence we need to establish whether an allegation is true. That might simply mean that the case cannot proceed, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.

Turning to the credibility and motives of those bringing complaints, which many Members have raised, I have concerns that there may well be instances in which the current system is being abused, and that spurious allegations are being brought against military personnel and service veterans. The answer lies in ensuring that we have a system in place that allows the prompt dismissal of cases that are brought on flimsy evidence or are not evidence-based. In cases where evidence is found to have been falsified or deliberately distorted, I would want to see penalties imposed for what I consider to be

27 Jan 2016 : Column 200WH

akin to the criminal charges of perverting the course of justice or, at the very least, wasting police time, or its equivalent in Scottish law.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) said, our legal system in this area must uphold the values of the European convention on human rights, as well as other international human rights treaties. We have to work with other nations to set an example of our values on human rights. Some Members have expressed the desire to derogate from the convention, but that is not the right way forward. The European convention on human rights was born out of the horrific events of world war two, which rightly made the international community think very carefully.

Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making a very good point, but the problem with regard to derogation is that it was specifically intended by the authors to allow for operations outside the territory. The danger of the argument he is making is that the Scottish National party is turning soldiers from cannon fodder into courtroom fodder.

Steven Paterson: I will resist getting into party politics. This is a serious case and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman made his point very well there—[Interruption.]

Albert Owen (in the Chair): Order.

Steven Paterson: Time is now against me, but to address the hon. Gentleman’s point, I hope that we all accept the need to uphold standards of human rights. That should be the case across the world, wherever we send our armed forces. Our armed forces have our support and gratitude for the difficult work that they do on our behalf in defending not only us but our values. That means that our armed forces must always live by and espouse the same values that they defend with such distinction.

5.25 pm

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) not only on securing the debate, but on his excellent contribution and the valuable perspective that he brought to the debate—I think it informed all of us.

This important issue raises emotions and concerns among all hon. Members. It is a matter of tremendous national pride that Britain’s world-class armed forces are renowned across the globe for upholding the very highest military standards, so often while performing in the most dangerous of theatres, and are rightly acknowledged as being expected to conform to, and indeed as achieving, the very highest standards of ethical behaviour. None of us should forget for a moment the debt of gratitude that we owe to our servicemen and women, nor should we lack humility about what we in this House have expected of them under the most trying circumstances imaginable.

I turn to the purpose of establishing the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. Rather than begin a long drawn-out public inquiry, it was considered to be better for all parties concerned to deal with allegations on a case by case basis, managed by a dedicated team, to identify whether there were causes for concern and to manage the process in as timely a manner as possible. In November 2010,

27 Jan 2016 : Column 201WH

IHAT was given full investigatory powers by the coalition Government to ensure that the resulting investigations would be in keeping with the UK’s legal obligations under the European convention on human rights, and I share many of the concerns that hon. Members have raised today.

It is important to re-emphasise that although we all have tremendous respect for our armed forces and the work they do, and although we are all conscious of the danger of malicious inquiries and the effect that they would have on the morale and stress of those serving, nobody in this debate has been arguing that our soldiers are above the law. We have to ensure that when serious allegations are made, they are properly investigated. The UK is among the countries with the highest human rights standards in the world, and we should be proud of being held to those standards.

The work of IHAT, however, was initially due to be concluded in 2012. We are now in 2016, with the conclusion deferred at least until 2019. There is a genuine fear that IHAT is becoming exactly what it was designed to prevent: a drawn-out investigation that becomes a burden on valued members of the armed forces and the taxpayer alike. There is also a sense that the transparency and generosity of spirit evident in the setting up of the team is being abused by irresponsible law firms or malicious complainants.

Although it is right to ensure that allegations are properly investigated, we also have to prevent abuse of the public purse and ensure that our justice system is not being systematically abused. We are all aware of the recent allegations of ambulance chasing by certain law firms, and the Prime Minister rightly said today that certain firms clearly have questions to answer.

As we have heard, only this week 57 allegations of unlawful killing were dropped due to lack of evidence. That is 57 innocent soldiers who have had that hanging over their heads and have faced the prospect of prosecution for crimes of which they knew they were innocent. It is imperative that we do all we can to prevent that from happening again. However, using the alleged cases of ambulance chasing as an excuse to withdraw from the European convention on human rights seems to be the wrong approach. I am happy to look at the details of the Government’s proposals and to support evidence-based measures that discourage claims without merit and make sure they are not funded through legal aid.

Victoria Prentis: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Toby Perkins: I do not have time.

I believe that measures such as re-examining the current eligibility criteria for legal aid, or the development of a residency test for civil legal aid, would be very welcome. I know that I, like other Members, would have trouble explaining to my constituents in Chesterfield why an individual who has never set foot on British soil should be able to claim legal aid to bring civil legal action against a member of our armed forces at the UK taxpayer’s expense. Not only is the prospect of prosecution for an alleged historic crime traumatic for the serving soldier, but I am worried, as are other Members, that such a practice could act as a barrier to recruitment in future generations. For that reason, I am also interested to read the Government’s proposals on a time limit for individuals or firms to submit cases to IHAT.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 202WH

I ask the Minister the following questions. How can the Government guarantee that only individuals with a strong connection with the UK will have access to UK-funded legal aid? Will the Government consider applying a specific time limit or cut-off date relating to allegations of human rights abuse in Iraq? What more can the Minister tell us about the success the Government have had in prosecuting firms who make malicious complaints, as the Prime Minister referred to today? Can she tell us what steps will be taken to enforce that approach and what criteria will be used to decide that a complaint is without merit? What impact do the Government believe the process is having on morale, on the stress levels of people who served in Iraq and on recruitment and retention within the Army, both among those who served in Iraq and more generally? Do the Government think that a timetable of 2019 for concluding the work of IHAT is acceptable, and what steps are they taking to support and reassure servicemen and women who suddenly find themselves within the process?

I want to reiterate our admiration for those who served in Iraq and assure the Government of our intention to support any practical steps that they can take to rebuild confidence in this process.

5.30 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Penny Mordaunt): I thank the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for securing this debate. He is a doughty champion of our armed forces and a former member of their number. I also thank, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) who have spoken today and have been a great help to me in the work I have undertaken since May last year.

I also thank all hon. Members who have spoken in support of our armed forces today. We send them into harm’s way, dressed in body armour, to defend our freedom and national interest. It is not just their courage and capability that makes them the best, it is their values and the high standards we hold them to—values of self-discipline and self-sacrifice. Much of what they do in both war and peace is to uphold the rule of law, including international humanitarian law such as the well-known and well-understood Geneva conventions.

As a nation, we have chosen to invest in preserving and promoting those vital rules in armed conflict, ensuring they are reflected in all we do, and using our considerable reach to instil them in armed forces around the world. It is right that we meet the obligations on us to investigate credible allegations of human rights breaches, serious criminality and war crimes. How ironic then that those brave men and women, who do so much to protect and promote human rights and the laws that enshrine them, stand accused of wishing to exempt themselves from such obligations. I will set out some of the shocking practices of those accusers, mainly two law firms, that concern us and what we are doing to meet our manifesto commitment. I will contrast that with the work of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team and provide an insight into its remit, its methods and some of the cases it has been dealing with which, if I do them justice, will reassure Members of the House and the armed forces.

I want to explain why protecting our armed forces from litigation motivated by malice and money is compatible with upholding human rights and the pursuit of justice,

27 Jan 2016 : Column 203WH

and that human rights and justice depend upon it. It is not about holding our armed forces above the law, as Leigh Day has suggested, but rather that we wish to uphold the primacy of international humanitarian law that helps to keep our armed forces safe, gives them the freedom to act in accordance with those laws, and protects human rights.

The ability to take prisoners, for example, is a well-understood good, and not being able to do so would have very grave consequences for both sides of a conflict. Any action that undermines or deviates from such rules is detrimental to our operational ability and to the safety of our own armed forces. We should make no apology for investigating and holding our armed forces to account for such actions. It is in our national interest to do so, as well as in that of the people who serve in our armed forces.

The steady creep of extending the reach of European human rights legislation, which was not written for conflict situations, is eroding international humanitarian law. The behaviour of parasitic law firms churning out spurious claims against our armed forces on an industrial scale is the enemy of justice and humanity, not our armed forces or the Ministry of Defence.

Tom Tugendhat: When I was interviewing various witnesses for the “Clearing the Fog of Law” report, the former Member, Jack Straw, was very specific about the reason for not derogating in advance of the Iraq conflict, which was that it was never thought that the European convention had extra-territorial jurisdiction. What other Members have called for—I particularly highlight the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis)—is very reasonable in the light of that experience.

Penny Mordaunt: The hon. Gentleman is right, and he knows what he is talking about.

When the courts entertain claims against our armed forces of the likes of an insurgent bomb-maker suing us for not shooting him in a fire fight, but instead taking him prisoner and holding him until we could guarantee he would not face mistreatment in the local justice system, it is not just our armed forces who suffer the strain on them and the corrupting effect on their behaviour in the field, the cause of human rights suffers too. Today, when faced with the likes of Leigh Day and PIL, we need to wrap our service personnel in more than just body armour when we send them out to defend freedom.

Shortly the National Security Council will meet to decide on a number of options to address all the concerns that hon. Members have expressed this afternoon. Over the last eight months, extensive work has been going on in the MOD and the MOJ on these issues. Hon Members have mentioned some of the options that may be brought forward, and there are others.

Specifically with regard to spurious litigation being brought against our service personnel and the conduct of legal firms, the Prime Minister has announced that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice and I will chair a working group to tackle every aspect of that, including conditional fee arrangements, legal aid rules and disciplinary sanctions against lawyers who are abusing the system or attempting to pervert the course of justice.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 204WH

Against that backdrop, I understand that the work of IHAT has been tarred with the same brush. Hon. Members have spoken about why it was set up. It was to ensure that we have a domestic process as opposed to an international one. I want to give an insight into some of the cases, because they are illuminating.

In case No. 377, it was alleged that a passenger in a car was shot by an

“hysterical British soldier in a tank.”

That IHAT investigation ascertained that PIL had submitted the allegation in October 2014, despite Danish armed forces accepting liability for the incident and paying compensation in 2003.

In case No. 123, it was alleged that a 13-year-old girl had been killed when she picked up part of a UK cluster bomb that had failed to detonate. The IHAT investigation established that a 13-year-old boy had been killed, but was unable to ascertain whether Iraqi or UK munitions were responsible. PIL challenged the MOD’s decision not to refer it to the IFI—Iraq fatality investigations. The MOD defended the challenge on the basis of that information. Shortly before the hearing, PIL disclosed a witness statement by the boy’s father, made before the IHAT investigation, in which he said that the boy had been killed while in the vicinity of an Iraqi mobile missile launcher preparing to fire missiles into Kuwait that was destroyed by a coalition helicopter. There are many other cases that I could mention. It was concluded, after thorough investigation, that UK service personnel had acted in self-defence, in the defence of others, and lawfully.

IHAT enables us to meet our obligations to investigate serious wrongdoing, and its work is exonerating those wrongly accused and rejecting bogus allegations. I would add that the sniper case that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury mentioned is not an IHAT case. Its investigators—a mix of service personnel, police officers and legal experts—are doing a public service, and I pay tribute to them. They feel their responsibilities keenly. Those investigators did not set up IHAT; we did. That was done not by anyone in this Chamber today, but by a previous Government, and for sound legal and policy reasons—there should be a domestic system of accountability, because without that there would be an international one. I hope that I have set the record straight on that. However, some questions remain for us, the politicians.

Does the existence of IHAT invite such claims? Were we not funding it, would fewer cases be brought? Why are so many cases brought and why are they so poorly researched, lengthening the investigation process? How can we speed that up? What support is given to our armed forces during the process? The work of IHAT is independent of the MOD, and we would not interfere with its investigations or work, but those are genuine questions to look at. It is right that we look at further ways of speeding up the process without compromising the quality of its output or its independence.

I can reassure hon. Members that we do all we can to support our armed forces through such investigations, and that support is also embedded in the practices of IHAT. It does give notice of investigations, and hon. Members must flag it up if they have heard of instances in which that has not been the case. Support that the MOD routinely provides to service personnel includes

27 Jan 2016 : Column 205WH

the funding of legal costs and, where appropriate, the funding of judicial reviews, as well as pastoral support. We fund medical assessments and applications to excuse from giving evidence veterans and serving personnel who are not medically fit to do so. Indeed, some in the judiciary have criticised the MOD for providing the level of support that we do provide. Those obligations remain, whatever the theatre in which the actions took place, whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland or elsewhere, but we recognise the cost of all this to our servicemen and women and to the public purse.

The al-Sweady case, in which our armed forces were exonerated and which resulted in Leigh Day being referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, cost the MOD and the British taxpayer £31 million to stage—£31 million, I would argue, would be better spent on equipment and support for our armed forces. The status quo is financially unsustainable and morally unjustifiable. To put this right falls to us in this place, and we must all be resolved to do so. This issue and the solutions that we will bring forward are complex, but the objective is simple: we must protect human rights and we must protect those who defend them—our armed forces.

Albert Owen (in the Chair): We have run out of time, but I will give the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) one minute. I apologise for the time restraints.

27 Jan 2016 : Column 206WH

5.40 pm

Richard Benyon: You are very generous, Mr Owen. I thank hon. Members for taking part in the debate and particularly the Minister, who has proved, as she always does, that she is a very good Minister indeed and has understood the feeling in this place and beyond it—that is what is really important. Can she pick up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and really communicate to the cohort in our armed forces today that they will get our support throughout the process and ensure that they understand why this has been set up and that we are moving away from allowing this culture to continue?

I will finish by saying to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) that this has nothing to do with Europe. I have similar views on Europe to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis). I understand the history of the European Court, its place in our society and the convention on human rights. This is about trying to ensure that we have the best legal vehicle for dealing with these matters.

5.41 pm

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).