Dr Julian Lewis: My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) is one of the most decent and good-hearted Members in any part of this House. It is therefore a pleasure, as well as a privilege, to follow him in this short debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and I are acquaintances and friends probably going back longer in our political association with one another than either of us does with any other Member of the House. We began to work together politically in 1981 and, as he said in the somewhat reflective part of his contribution, the issue on which we were working was to counter the dangerous and widespread movement for one-sided nuclear disarmament that was in its heyday at that time at the height of the second phase of the cold war. He rightly paid tribute to the work of Lord Heseltine, as he now is, and others who fought and won that battle. They not only won the argument but won the election on the basis of the strength of the argument, because of the commitment of the British people never to leave this country wide open to aggression from undemocratic and, indeed, dictatorial states.
At the time when my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and I were waging that political campaign, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) was engaged in somewhat more dangerous activities, fighting to defend the integrity of the United Kingdom and the security of its citizens in Northern Ireland. Some time ago, he and my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) raised the question of the legal persecution of soldiers who had fought in Northern Ireland in an attempt to mount a successful security operation against enemies who were bound by no accepted rules, norms or laws of conflict. In that counter-terrorist campaign up to 40 years ago, they had to make sometimes life and death decisions in fractions of a second in a form of conflict for which, for the most part, they were entirely untrained. Now, up to 40 years later, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham and my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke have made clear, they find themselves in peril of being brought before the courts in relation to actions that have often been investigated over and over again without there being enough evidence available for any proper prosecution to be brought forward.
Bob Stewart: I thank my right hon. Friend and you, Mr Deputy Speaker – a colonel of the Royal Army Medical Corps, of course – for allowing me to intervene.
I was involved in fatality shootings in Northern Ireland in my time, but every single time there was a fatality, it was investigated. If it was considered right by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, it would send in an investigation team to check that we had acted legally. I tell fellow Members this: we were so constrained by the yellow card – the rules for opening fire – that we almost thought about it as we went to sleep. It weighed heavily on us in those milliseconds before we opened fire. So it is very hard on us, all these years later, to face the prospect of revisiting these incidents when they were properly investigated at the time and we were told that there was no case to answer.
Dr Lewis: Everything I have heard about the conduct of my hon. and gallant Friend, not only in Northern Ireland but in Bosnia and in other dangerous parts of the world, testifies to one single unanimous assessment: that he was an inspiration to the troops he led and that they would follow him anywhere. It is quite right that he has done so much in his time in this House to repay that admiration and to honour the trust that they rightly put in him. What concerns me is that we are not repaying the debt that we owe to servicemen, who in those days were very young who were put in an invidious position in a counter-terrorist environment in circumstances for which they had received no special training.
The Select Committee on Defence has looked into this matter in some depth, and we had an extensive debate on the subject on 25 January in Westminster Hall. I do not propose to rehearse the arguments made there. I just wish to remind the House of something that I have pledged constantly to keep reminding it of – that there will be no end to this process until the Government have the determination to bring in a statute of limitations for all terrorist-related incidents up to and including the date of the Belfast agreement. I have had many conversations with many people about this, including Sinn Féin MPs, who had their own concerns that also have some power and force to them. For them, there is the issue of many unresolved deaths for which inquests have not yet been held.
I believe that there is a basis for a comprehensive solution to that problem. People would be best able to get to the root of what happened to their loved ones if other people, on any side of this multifaceted and horrible conflict, could come forward to explain to the best of their ability what they remember of those circumstances so long ago, without fear of finding themselves in a state of self-incrimination. We have the example of what happened in South Africa and the lesson taught to us by Nelson Mandela.
In the course of the Defence Committee’s inquiry into these matters, we took evidence from eminent professors of law. They said that we could not have a statute of limitations that favours only one side in a conflict, because that could be interpreted as the state legislating for its own impunity, but they emphasised that if we were to combine a statute of limitations with what they call a “truth recovery process” for everybody, that could indeed be entirely legitimate in the face of any form of international legal regime.
The reason for my raising this issue yet again today is my concern about one particular point. The previous Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), whom we all welcome back into the Cabinet in another capacity following his successful surgery, initiated a consultation exercise that is supposed to be going ahead. He specifically said that the option of introducing a statute of limitations on the basis I have described would be included in that consultation exercise. I do not expect the Deputy Leader of the House to be able to respond today, but I do expect him to take away my concern about the suggestions that that option may not now be included in the consultation when it eventually happens. That would be a retrograde step.
As we have seen with Brexit, we cannot always have our cake and eat it. Sometimes we have to decide whether we are going to have – in other words, keep – our cake or eat it, and we cannot put off the point of making that direct choice forever. If that is true of Brexit, it is also true of the ongoing problem of the vulnerability of our armed forces to one-sided prosecution. The Government need to grip this matter. They have an opportunity to, and I hope that they will.
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[The Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury (Paul Maynard): ... The final colleague to participate was my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). I pay tribute to his noble campaigning down the years on nuclear defence – he is truly a legend.
My right hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that we have always been clear that as part of our work to implement the Stormont House agreement, we will seek to ensure that the new legacy bodies are under legal obligations to be fair, balanced and proportionate. The current process is not working for anyone, including victims and survivors. We want to reform it so that there is no prioritising of deaths caused by the security forces. At the same time, we want to ensure that our veterans, the overwhelming majority of whom served with great distinction in Northern Ireland, including my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham, are not unfairly treated or disproportionately investigated. I have noted my right hon. Friend’s specific query and will make sure that my officials bring it to the attention of the relevant Department. ...]