An interview with Rt Hon Dr Julian Lewis MP, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee
By Phillip Taylor MBE. Richmond Green Chambers, Reviews editor of The Barrister
The Barrister – June-July 2018 (No. 77)
Readers of The Barrister may wonder why Dr Julian Lewis is the subject on an interview in a legal magazine. The answer can be found in two parts.
First, Lewis is an intriguing politician from an academic background with no military or legal service as such. It was a delight to interview him because you know exactly what you are going to get when the answers to the questions come out – very detailed and highly intelligent responses across the political spectrum… but from someone without the incumbrances of service life or legal life.
Second, the work of the Commons Defence Select Committee, which he has chaired since 2015 covers a multitude of inquiries of a legal nature which, I suggest, will be of great interest to lawyers.
I asked him specifically about the use of Larium for military personnel and what had happened to his report. It was the reason for my interest in his activities because of the contemplation of legal proceedings in many cases involving the use of the drug Larium and the financial costs if liability could be established. The MoD, like other big departments has a massive budget set aside in case they are sued!
THE COMMONS DEFENCE SELECT COMMITTEE
The Commons Select Committees are a most useful scrutiny tool for our parliamentarians since they were first established in 1979. Previous issues of The Barrister have examined the work of other select committees including the Justice and Foreign Affairs Committees so Defence needed to follow.
Defence, of course, will always raise an interest with both the general public and the lawyer because of its work, its intrigue and its budget. As a retired MoD civil servant, myself, and an ex-soldier now lawyer and putting classified matters aside, there is always something of mystery about the MoD to lawyers and our readership.
Many older members of Counsel will see direct parallels between our work and procedures, the way the judiciary operates, and the way we were trained (generally in the past) because there are great similarities with the military. At least that was the position until recently now the shrinking numbers of soldiers means many have no knowledge of service life and that is certainly the case in Parliament.
A quick look at the recent membership of the Defence Select Committee illustrates that it remains a resting port for many ex-service persons as their numbers in the Commons dwindle (like barristers).
SO, WHO IS JULIAN LEWIS?
Julian is not ex-military or legal, he’s an academic. He has been an MP since 1997 representing leafy New Forest East in Hampshire (majority 21,995 on 1st May 2017). And he’s proud of his right-wing credentials as a supporter of the Eurosceptic group “Leave Means Leave”, plus others. He is a Swansea man educated at Balliol and then St Antony’s College, Oxford where he was awarded his DPhil in Strategic Studies in 1981. He is also a numerous book and article writer and you can view the impressive list on his website which he referred me to regularly throughout our meeting when I wanted an answer or a quote. Very cerebral.
I first came in contact with Julian during the formidable CND years of the Cold War 1980s when he was a leading opponent of their activities at Oxford and elsewhere. I was one of the few elected Tories in the Oxford area then facing up to CND in both the politics and the business of the time.
Throughout his political life, Julian has maintained a very detailed knowledge and substantial interest in all things “defence”. His interests have included the main intelligence issue of subversion (I am not including sabotage or espionage here) having highlighted Militant Tendency entryism into the Labour Party (long before the birth of Momentum) in Reg Prentice’s seat of Newham North east. And he has been a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament.
So, Julian comes to the Defence portfolio with an interesting CV having been Research Director of the Coalition for Peace through Security from 1981-85. He then moved to become a Deputy Director of the Research Department at Conservative Central Office in the 1990s. This natural interest in defence issues led to his appointment as Shadow Defence Minister in the 2000s and as a Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office although he has not held ministerial office. For reasons, see below.
“FRONT BENCH TERRIER”
As one of the “most vigorous rightwingers in the Commons” (Daily Telegraph bias), this “front bench terrier” (Guardian bias) has been given the honour of one of the Frontbenchers and Backbenchers of the Year (ConservativeHome – certainly a bit biased).
But, as you see when you meet Julian, he does possess that special cross-party appeal which I have seen with all the select committee chairmen. And that is why he chairs Defence at present with a committee most effectively bringing Gavin Williamson and others to account! That is not to say, of course, that the select committees are a repository for the disaffected. Far from it, as the disaffected though vigorous remain (to use a word) in Soubry corner in the Commons.
One major point of our discussions was the use of the controversial anti-malarial drug Lariam among service personnel. This was the “legal hit” which Julian has been involved with for some years taking up cases. Initially, he raised the use of the drug in some PQs and received the usual rubbish response from the government. After some rather lack-lustre media attention the matter arrived at the committee.
The published report is entitled An acceptable risk? The use of Lariam by military personnel of 24th May 2016. The Government response was published on 13th September 2016. Since then, the issue has appeared occasionally in the press and on TV. It led to an interesting settlement when the MoD “quietly paid” a “significant sum” to a former member of the Royal Artillery, known as “gunners” for the uninitiated.
We all know about settlements, especially in PI cases. This one was believed to be the first of its kind in the UK. And it was made weeks before “an expected court case”. Earlier in 2018 it became apparent that hundreds more former service personnel might sue the MoD costing the public a very large amount of money.
For readers unfamiliar with Lariam, it is a drug which “has been linked to depression, hallucinations and panic attacks”. The allegation remains that those given the drug were not given any warnings or advice about it, raising the issue of a breach of a duty of care. The facts are enough to worry MoD lawyers with some 17,368 military personnel given the drug between 2008 and 2015. The symptoms followed a pattern which the PI/negligence lawyer would identify quickly with… suffering personality changes, irritability, broken sleep patterns and seizures.
In an interesting development in one settled case which we know about, the MoD (never admitting liability for anything) allegedly admitted breaching the duty of care it owed to the troops. However, it maintains that usual position that the breach “had not resulted in any injury or loss” to the claimant. No wonder they wanted to settle.
In a modest way, Julian Lewis (I think) recognises that his committee has produced a most important report on Lariam and they have certainly earned themselves much support amongst the service community. I know that a number of claimants and their families certainly do!
The defence put up by the MoD remains stolid. They continue the line which we hear from other government departments (very much civil service speak) that “respected health bodies” (unnamed and unidentified) continue to recommend the use of Lariam “as a safe and effective form of malaria prevention”. A sad statement, as it would appear not to be the case but I am not using any other words in reply.
MoD AND THE LAW
It can be seen from the Lariam example that the MoD and the Law have a rather special relationship. The Defence Select Committee have launched a number of inquiries, most with a causal link to national and international law. They include “Global Islamic Terrorism” looking at how the UK counters global Islamist terrorism, and the “Armed Forces Covenant Annual Report” – this time covering 2017 although at the time of meeting I could not discuss the Covenant.
Of more interest since the Lariam report, is the inquiry into the extent of mental health issues across both serving armed forces personnel and veterans. From recent statements made by committee member, Johnny Mercer MP, and others, the mental health issue is rising up the political agenda whilst the law itself remains in a state of perpetual confusion until we have a proper statute sometime after Brexit.
JULIAN AND NEW TECHNOLOGY
Contacting Julian has always been a bit of a problem for some as he does not like email and the press like to get at him regularly – the political commentators’ dream and you know who you are, Quentin!
To all his critics, remember Julian does use some email services, and he has made an extensive use of the web which I found most impressive and imaginative. If you ever want to know anything about him, it is there if you do your detailed research on julianlews.net.
And some ten years ago, Julian secured a victory changing the Freedom of Information Act over a High Court order that some home addresses of MPs be published. The change means that, in future, addresses in respect of any other Parliamentarians could not be published.
Lewis is also rightly credited with the removal of a requirement for general election (not local election) candidates to have their home addresses disclosed on nomination and ballot papers. This came some years before the murder of Jo Cox MP and it highlights the changing attitude towards the offering of information to the public and the security of MPs as our representatives.
Julian Lewis is, above all else, a Parliamentarian of the new generation notwithstanding his proud, right of centre credentials which have coloured his political career for some. I believe we are indebted to him and his committee for the work they do with an MoD that has a rather different view than some about the department’s position regarding rule of law an legal matters. More power to him and his committee for the future as the shrinking soldiery continues.