Dr Julian Lewis: I shall begin with a number of expressions of gratitude: gratitude to the Chair for allowing me to contribute at all when, because of another Defence Committee commitment, I could not attend as much of the debate as I should have; gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) for her splendid work in this respect on the armed forces covenant – she is relatively new to the House of Commons, but has taken to this place like a duck takes to water; gratitude to the Minister, who carries out his responsibilities with a great deal of conscientiousness, informed not least by his own frontline military service, for which the country has reason to be grateful; and gratitude to all hon. Members and hon. Friends who have seen active service and have spoken so movingly today.
In particular, I single out my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), who has just spoken. He held the House in a vice-like grip and added an important piece of information that will affect my own remarks. I had not known that Mr Shiner, who I believe glories in the title of professor, had been struck off today. I was not going to say anything about him because I knew that he was facing ongoing proceedings, but I now feel it incumbent on me to say that if people like that had been around in the aftermath of the second world war, and if our troops in that war had known that they would have to face the duplicity, the manoeuvrings and the outrages perpetrated on subsequent generations of soldiers by such people, they could not possibly have fought with the valour that they showed in defeating Nazism and fascism.
This country will be failed by its Government if we do not find a method of preventing what is a much more lethal version of the practice that used to be known in industrial relations terms as the “work to rule” from being applied every time a soldier has to pull a trigger in a deadly conflict. That practice would make the carrying out of the profession of arms absolutely impractical and impossible. The words that we have heard today, time and again, are “statute of limitations”. The idea that anyone could come up with new and relevant evidence 40 or more years after crimes – if they were crimes – have been committed is frankly preposterous in the context of a military conflict. It is not going to happen. All that such a process will do is put people through a mental and emotional wringer for no purpose other than to demoralise the ability of the state to send troops into harm’s way, or indeed to recruit troops in the knowledge that they will be sent into harm’s way at the behest of the state. Not only will those troops have to face the violence of the enemy; they will also have to face the lies, distortions and blatant manipulations of a blind justice system after they have survived the dangers of combat. That is totally untenable and it has to stop.
A statute of limitations does not imply pardoning or guilt. It does not imply anything other than the realisation that if the settlement in Northern Ireland is to hold, it has to have fairness on all sides. We cannot have a situation in which one group of people are, if not amnestied, at least given a ceiling of a couple of years to any possible prison sentence, and are even enabled to hold positions of high authority in the political system, while the soldiers who were doing their job with integrity on behalf of the democratic Government are placed in harm’s way and pursued to the ends of time.
Tom Tugendhat: Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are other lawyers who might be included in the points he is making?
Dr Lewis: I would say that we have to find a system to ensure that what happened in Iraq is never allowed to happen again. At some stage, that might mean standing up to the provisions of international law, and if we were to do that, we would have to use the strongest possible case. What case could be stronger than the existence of a settlement in Northern Ireland in which one group of people were protected while the soldiers who represented the majority of the people were unprotected and left exposed indefinitely?
As I have only a few seconds left, I urge people to look at the website of the Defence Committee to see details of the hearing that we held on 17 January, at which the Minister was questioned on a whole raft of issues about the welfare of our service personnel. In particular, I should like to give a little comfort to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Sir Julian Brazier) and to assure him that, in the light of the comments that he and others have made, and of the issues that were raised in that meeting with the Minister, it is, shall we say, more than a little probable that we will be looking into the question of service accommodation in the not too distant future.