Next PM should legislate to end repeated investigations of British troops – MPs

MPs have urged the next prime minister to legislate to end the “ridiculous charade” of “vexatious” and repeated investigations into alleged historical offences by British troops.

It comes after Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt set out proposals to give “our valiant veterans with better support and stronger legal safeguards”.

The Commons Defence Select Committee has called on the next government to bring forward proposals for a “presumption against prosecution” for alleged offences in operations overseas in the form of a draft Bill.

In its report, entitled Drawing A Line: Protecting Veterans By A Statute Of Limitations, the MPs warned that repeated investigations risk undermining morale within the armed forces as well as trust in the rule of law.

While the committee stated that troops are not above the law, it said there is “something fundamentally wrong when veterans and current service personnel can be investigated and exonerated, only then to become trapped in a cycle of endless re-investigation”.

Cabinet meeting
Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt leaves following a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street (David Mirzoeff/PA)

“We warn that this state of affairs risks undermining not only morale within the armed forces, and the potential for future recruitment, but also trust in the rule of law,” they said.

The committee welcomed plans put forward by Ms Mordaunt to create a “statutory presumption” against prosecution of current or former personnel for alleged offences committed in the course of duty abroad more than 10 years ago.

The legislation, which is subject to public consultation, will stipulate that such prosecutions are not in the public interest unless there are “exceptional circumstances”, such as if compelling new evidence emerged.

Writing in the Daily Mail, Ms Mordaunt said that, just as Britain treasures veterans of older conflicts, so too it must support those who have served in recent campaigns including Afghanistan and Iraq.

“They also never thought twice about giving their all for us. We owe them a huge debt as well. They had our backs. We must have theirs,” she wrote.

Ms Mordaunt also added that the Government “must address the spectre of investigations into historic allegations”.

“Veterans and serving personnel alike have been hounded by processes often not motivated by the pursuit of justice,” she said.

“We’ve seen the same allegations investigated over and over again, without a shred of new evidence. We’ve seen unscrupulous legal firms racking up legal aid bills for fabricated accusations.

“And we’ve seen attempts by them to pursue cases that stand no chance of a conviction, putting those accused through hell. This is a travesty.”

Ms Mordaunt acknowledged that there are occasional cases where serving personnel have committed offences, adding: “Such individuals should not escape justice.”

But the committee – whose report covers legacy investigations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland – said it was concerned the proposal will not cover soldiers who served during the Troubles.

UK national security warning
MPs are calling for a qualified statute of limitations (Andrew Parsons/PA)

The Defence Secretary’s proposals apply to operations overseas, but she also acknowledged significant concern about those who served in Northern Ireland.

She said the Government’s obligations to those veterans was the same.

Committee chairman and Tory MP Dr Julian Lewis said: “We believe in what we term a ‘Qualified Statute of Limitations’ – one that draws a line after a decade has elapsed unless compelling new evidence can be produced.

“To meet the requirements of international law that adequate investigation must have taken place, this process could include a Truth Recovery Process where evidence can be taken, without threat of prosecution, finally to uncover the facts.”

Conservative committee member Johnny Mercer – a former Army officer – said: “The time for successive secretaries of state to put this issue in the ‘too difficult’ box has officially passed with the conclusions of this report.

“There are options available to end what I consider one of the greatest injustices we self-inflict upon those who serve.

“I and others fully expect the next prime minister to end this ridiculous charade and legislate to prevent abuses of the legal system by those who seek to rewrite history.”

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “No-one wants to see our brave personnel subjected to repeated investigations about historical offences, which is why we are launching a consultation today on proposals for providing legal protections for serving and former armed forces personnel.

“The consultation will also propose introducing an absolute time limit for bringing civil litigation claims against the Government, allowing a line to be drawn under claims for historical incidents overseas once and for all.”

The new prime minister – either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt – will enter Downing Street on Wednesday following the result of the Tory leadership contest.

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