By Sam Lister, Deputy Political Editor
Daily Express –15 May 2019
Brave Army veterans are to be given new protections from historical legal witch hunts in a major step forward for the Daily Express crusade to stop former troops being persecuted.
New Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt has heard the plea for action and will announce plans to stop ex-soldiers being hounded long after they leave service. Ms Mordaunt, a navy reservist, said it was high time men and women serving in the armed forces were protected from repeated or unfair investigations years later. The Daily Express has been crusading for former British troops to be given immunity from prosecution for actions they took serving their country in the past.
Ms Mordaunt's plans mark a significant step forward but the extra protections will not apply to former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland because an agreement made in 2014 makes it more difficult to introduce changes. The decision to push ahead with the reforms comes just two weeks after she was made Defence Secretary. Ms Mordaunt said:
"We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to our Armed Forces who put their lives on the line to protect our freedom and security. It is high time that we change the system and provide the right legal protections to make sure the decisions our service personnel take in the battlefield will not lead to repeated or unfair investigations down the line."
A consultation on legal protections for serving and former personnel facing historical allegations will now be launched. Ms Mordaunt wants to introduce new laws that will ensure service personnel and veterans are not subjected to repeated investigations on historical operations many years after the events in question.
Proposals include a statutory presumption against prosecution for alleged offences committed more than 10 years ago. It would mean legal cases would only be brought in "exceptional circumstances" such as if new compelling evidence emerged.
Julian Lewis, Chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, said he was pleased Ms Mordaunt was "accelerating" action to stop veterans being pursued. The Conservative MP said a lot of the problems with historic investigations stemmed from failures to probe incidents at the time they happened. He added:
"We have to find a way to stop the work that our service personnel have to do when fighting conflicts from being lawyered to death because that could put their lives at risk in a battlefield situation.
"However welcome these safeguards are for the international context that does not mean that soldiers in Northern Ireland who were required to act as peace keepers in a situation of internal terrorist activity should be left unprotected.
"I would hope that the unit that has produced these plans would redouble its efforts to give justice appropriately to those veterans of The Troubles who are still being pursued so many years after the events concerned."
Outrageous attempts to hound veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland will influence how the reforms are drawn up. The presumption will stipulate that prosecutions in such circumstances are not to be considered to be in the public interest, except in "exceptional circumstances", for example if new compelling evidence were to emerge.
Ms Mordaunt will also set out her commitment to opting out of European Convention on Human Rights rules before the country launches significant military operations. The plans, first announced three years ago, will protect British troops serving in future conflicts from the kind of persistent legal claims that have followed operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The pursuit of former soldiers has sparked outrage among veterans. Former corporal-major Dennis Hutchings, 77, has appealed to the Supreme Court after being pursued for attempted murder in connection with a fatal shooting in Northern Ireland in 1974. The pensioner from Cawsand, Cornwall, has denied the charges.