Dr Julian Lewis: I would be inclined to agree with many of the speeches made from the Opposition Benches, not least the eloquent one from the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), if it were not for one salient fact. As part of the peace superstructure, in 1998 the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill was passed. That Bill put an end to the argument that we must not treat terrorists on the same level as security forces, because it does that in one sense only, which is that everybody is treated equally before the law. It was often said at the time, “Security forces personnel could go to prison for life, but terrorists could not be sentenced to more than two years in jail no matter how many people they had killed.” I had a meeting with MPs from both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin MPs, who pointed out to me that, as far as they knew, that applied to the security forces just as much as it applied to the IRA. And they were right: it does.
I think the Defence Committee was one of the first organisations, if not the first, to introduce the concept of a statute of limitation into the current debate. We did so in 2017 with our first report, but I had heard of the concept of the statute of limitation some 50 or 60 years ago in the context of Nazi war criminals who were escaping justice because a certain number of decades had elapsed since they had committed their crimes. As it happens, a few years before I was born, the vast majority of my family in Nazi-occupied Poland was murdered for nothing more than the crime of being Jewish. I felt then, as I am sure the victims’ families feel now, that it would be outrageous for the perpetrators to get off simply because a certain amount of time had elapsed. However, there was a difference then, in that legislation had not been passed – as it was felt necessary to pass it in this context in 1998 – to say that no matter how many people someone had killed, they could not be sentenced to more than two years in jail and they would not serve more than a derisory few months of that sentence. So the pass has already been sold on the question of getting justice for heinous crimes.
We then come to the question of those who say, “Well, it is not so much the length of the sentence that matters, but that we should have our day in court.” There is another problem here: all these years have elapsed and people have not had their day in court, because there has not been enough evidence adduced.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith: I tried to raise this point with the Leader of the Opposition and I pose it to anybody: what do people want? Do they want the knowledge of what happened or do they want the prosecution and the punishment? As my right hon. Friend said, the punishment is pretty much gone. The point of the prosecution is also gone, unless it is only about the knowledge – in which case, how do we go about getting the knowledge? That is clearly what this seems to be settling down to, if people are honest about it.
Dr Lewis: That is exactly the central point. There are perhaps two ways of getting the knowledge. One way is to go on as we have been in trying to investigate these things piecemeal, with everybody trying to hide everything to the maximum because they feel that they will be prosecuted. The other way is to bring in a truth recovery mechanism which, in return for the granting of immunity, maximises the possibility that the truth may come out.
Stephen Farry: Does the right hon. Member concede that a middle path is to have investigations, rather than reviews? That is what a lot of the commentary in Northern Ireland is focusing on. The prospect of prosecutions actually happening is very limited, but victims are looking for the interrogation of evidence and the challenge that happens through a proper investigation rather than, simply, a desk-top review.
Dr Lewis: That is precisely what the truth recovery process is meant to achieve.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith: Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Dr Lewis: I will one more time, but I would like to develop my argument, fascinating though these interventions are.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith: I apologise, but I want to develop this point. Is the Bill not, in fact, about changing and tightening the process, if knowledge is the key element, to make it happen in an interrogative manner – in which case, that would be the way forward?
Dr Lewis: I can happily live with that compromise, if the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) can do the same.
In our 2016-17 inquiry, we approached this question from the point of view that serving and ex-service personnel were being dragged into court – because we were worried not that guilty service personnel might be found guilty, but that innocent service personnel would be found innocent only after they had gone through a horrendous process of trial, investigation, reinvestigation, and on and on. There are numerous cases of perfectly blameless personnel who, as a result of vexatious litigation, have found themselves being investigated over and over again. We have heard much about the trauma of the victim’s family, and I empathise with that totally – not least because of what I said about my family history – but we have not heard enough about the trauma of innocent service personnel and security forces who were being investigated over and over again. [Interruption.] I am delighted to hear murmurings of support from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), who knows more about this than most.
Sir Mike Penning: It is not just about those who were dragged through the courts; it is about those who have been at home for years and years afterwards – I first served in 1976 – worrying about whether a letter would come through the box. It is about the fear felt by innocent people as well as those who are being dragged through.
Dr Lewis: That is absolutely right. It is all about protecting innocent service personnel from the vexatious use of the legal process. As I said in my intervention on the Secretary of State, it is not the punishment, but the process; indeed, the process is the punishment.
In the Defence Committee’s inquiry, we were fortunate to discuss with four eminent professors the applicability of the statute of limitations. Of course, I do not attribute my views to any of them, but I record the then Committee’s gratitude to Professor Sands, Professor Rowe, Professor McEvoy and Professor Ekins. They made it very clear that any statute of limitations had to apply to everybody or to nobody; there could be no legislating for state impunity.
The professors also made it clear that international law required not a prosecution, but an adequate investigation, and that that requirement could be met by a truth recovery process. The one concession that I make to those who have been criticising the Bill is that the Government need to be absolutely sure that the truth recovery process that they propose will stand up to that test in international law.
Brandon Lewis indicated assent.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Conor Burns) indicated assent.
Dr Julian Lewis: I am glad to see the Secretary of State and the Minister of State nodding, because it is essential that the process stand up to the test.
As I said in my intervention on the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), we can do one of two things. We can do what the Opposition parties want, which is to go on investigating cases more or less ad infinitum with very few prosecutions and even fewer convictions, but with a miasma of fear percolating among people who know themselves innocent – particularly those who served with distinction in the armed forces, but feel the sword of vexatious legal persecution hanging over them. We can go on with that process in the almost certainly vain hope of convicting a few more murderers, or we can protect those people, but the only way to protect them is by protecting everyone.
That is what we did in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, so the Labour party, which introduced that Act, has no basis on which to criticise a Bill that proposes exactly the same thing, for the same reason: to put an end to this persecution and, perhaps, to increase the possibility that, through the truth recovery process, families will find out more about what happened to their loved ones. One thing is certain: the families are unlikely ever to see the people who killed their loved ones brought successfully to court. Those people are even less likely to be convicted, and even if they were, they would serve only a few months in jail.
Bereaved families are being asked to make a sacrifice, but they are being asked to make it on behalf of a huge number of former soldiers and others in the security forces who deserve to be protected from vexatious pursuit through the courts. That is what the Bill is intended to achieve.
Gavin Robinson: It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). He and I have parsed the course on this issue and the myriad alternatives within legacy over many years. I served on the Defence Committee with him during the 2016-17 inquiry, and the later inquiry whose findings were published in about 2018. We do not agree, and I am not sure that his synopsis of the views of those four academics was entirely fair; but I will return to that later in my speech. [...]