It has been far too long coming but nonetheless, the joint statement and comments made by the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon are a victory for common sense and, if I may say so, particularly for former serving soldier Johnny Mercer, the MP for Plymouth Moor View, who has worked tirelessly in his campaign to persuade HM Government to address the senseless application of the European Human Rights Act on British soldiers in combat zones and to end the practice of no win, no fee vexatious claims being made against them.
Now the Government has seemingly listened and are about to do just that. In the joint statement the Prime Minister has confirmed that UK troops will, in future, be protected from “industry of vexatious claims being pursued on those who served in previous conflicts”. The announcement confirms that in future conflicts Britain will seek a derogation ‘opt out’ from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), protecting our frontline forces from “spurious” legal claims.
Mr Mercer along with other MP’s such as Tom Tugendhat who is also a former serving soldier together with senior military figures have worked extremely hard to bring an end to what has, due primarily to European Human Rights laws become a legalised witch hunt against soldiers, sailors and airmen who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere over the past couple of decades. Not surprisingly most have welcomed the announcement from HMG as a being a ‘first step’ toward closing the gap between politicians and servicemen. To an extent I suppose, we need to be aware that some devil may remain in the detail.
Many of the legal challenges being brought against military personnel both serving and retired have been made and enabled through and because of the obligation we have to the European Convention on Human Rights. Claimants have in some cases demanded millions of pounds in compensation against soldiers who were only doing their duty and what they had been ordered to do. Hiding behind European Human Rights Laws was always a disgrace and should have been stopped by our government walking away which they could freely do if they chose very much earlier. Now, presumably through the Government seeking permission of Parliament to suspend Article 2 of the ECHR (the right to life) and Article 5 (the right to liberty) in future conflicts British troops deployed in theatre will be protected from future persistent legal claims.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4 this morning Tom Tugendhat said that “soldiering was about self-sacrifice and while bad soldiering must always be punished that is why we respect those who serve and that we must support them better”. The change in British Government attitude meaning that from now on troops will be protected from future vexatious claims by the MOD also means that operational capability will no longer be potentially adversely affected and that those deployed in theatre will no longer need to be unsure of their ground legally provided of course that they keep within national and international law. Hopefully the specific ECHR borne issue has now been addressed and we should also have a more effective military as a result of the support that the Government has announced that deployed troops will in future have.
While UK armed forces will at all times be required to operate in accordance with international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions for instance and all service related law and accept as Mrs May has quite rightly stated that if there are credible allegations of criminal behaviour, these will still need to be investigated but that we needed to stop the industry [that had grown up] of vexatious claims with lawyers appearing to chase around to find anybody who will bring a claim against our troops.”
The announcement from Mrs. May and the Secretary of State for Defence will, I hope, bring an end to what has been a disgraceful and alarming lack of support from HM Government over many years for members of our armed forces. I and others regret that it has taken this long but thank Mrs May for the quick actions she has taken tio address the problem.
The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) has been investigating some 1,500 ‘allegations’ of mistreatment and unlawful killing of Iraqis, while a separate inquiry, Operation Northmoor, has been looking at more than 550 allegations of abuse in Afghanistan, some dating back to 2005. Not surprisingly in this litigious day and age, knowledge that various inquiries are looking into allegations has caused the number of allegations and potential claims to multiply.
The Government will now set a time limit after which no new cases can be brought and there are, I believe, also plans to scale down financial incentives offered by legal firms and solicitors that have encouraged cases against individual members of the UK military on a no win, no fee basis.
Quite rightly, Johnny Mercer MP had over the past few weeks brought to the fore the fact that IHAT exists only to satisfy our commitment to EU based law. The hope is that by withdrawing from inept EU Human Rights law on this issue and presumably because defence remains an issue for sovereign governments no longer will this vexing concern for our soldiers, sailors and airmen potentially impact on combat ability.
Changing the law as it stands was always within the gift of the UK Government and the establishing of an exemption for combat based operations is in fact no different than the French already do.
Prime Minister, Theresa May told Sky News earlier this morning that “men and women in our armed forces go out there [into theatre] and put their lives on the line in order to defend us and do things that most people would not be willing to do, in terms of their going out and potentially paying the ultimate sacrifice for us. They should” she continued “know that Government is on their side. They should have the confidence when they go into combat for us that they are able to do what is necessary to keep us safe and to defend this country. What we’ve seen in recent times is human rights legislation being used to generate vexatious claims and troops finding themselves in great difficulty forced to worry and be concerned about the future as a result of that. I think it’s absolutely right that the Government should say to our troops that we are on your side”.
In the formal remarks to be made in a speech this afternoon my understanding is that Mrs. May will confirm that the Government will “ensure that our troops are recognised for the incredible job that they do.” She will say that “those who serve on the frontline will have our support when they come home and that we will repay them with gratitude and put an end to the industry of vexatious claims that has pursued those who served in previous conflicts. Combined with the biggest defence budget in Europe, the action we are laying out today means we will continue to play our part on the world stage, protecting UK interests across the globe”.
CHW (London – 4th October 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS