My Lords, we all owe a great debt of gratitude to the brave men and women who have served and continue to serve us so valiantly in our Armed Forces at home and in combat overseas. In my part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, we will never forget their efforts and, in many cases, their sacrifices during the height of the Troubles. For that reason, I welcome, and will always welcome, moves by Her Majesty’s Government to give greater standing to the Armed Forces covenant across the entirety of the United Kingdom. It is important to state that there should be no impediment that would block veterans from being treated fairly and equitably in any part of the United Kingdom.
In Northern Ireland, the New Decade, New Approach agreement committed the Government to legislate to incorporate the Armed Forces covenant further into law and to support its total implementation. It is right and just that the Bill before us today should treat Northern Ireland veterans and service personnel in exactly the same way as those in other parts of the United Kingdom, with full implementation of the military covenant. The failure to implement the covenant fully in Northern Ireland up to this point has let down our brave veterans. It is right that this injustice should be brought to an end.
Veterans across this nation should have full access to a full range of services. We owe it to our Armed Forces to do better. We owe it to them to provide a duty of care for legal, pastoral and mental health support. It is a historical fact that were it not for the bravery and courage of our Armed Forces and security personnel there would never have been a peace process in Northern Ireland and we would not have the relative peace that we enjoy today. We therefore have a duty here and in the other place to protect those who have protected us.
This stretches further, beyond the provision of the vital health and mental health services under discussion. We must also protect our brave men and women from malicious charges and questionable legal claims. We should Toggle showing location of Column 746value the principle that access to justice remains open for us all. To that end, it is worth noting in the strongest terms that there should never be any question of a blanket amnesty being offered. Where a murder has been committed, the law does and must apply equally. Equally, cases that have already been thoroughly investigated, and in some cases reinvestigated, and for which no new evidence has been brought forward, should not be continually reopened to satisfy a particular agenda.
There can be no moral equivalence between terrorists, or those accused of terror offences, and people accused of having committed offences when they were members of the Armed Forces trying to protect us from the terrorists. Those who served our country valiantly deserve some form of legislative protection against continual cycles of reinvestigation when they have been previously investigated and no compelling evidence has been brought. Where service personnel have been fairly judged to have carried out their duties, often in extremely difficult circumstances and at great risk to themselves, their actions should not be second-guessed years or decades later in the interests of political expediency.
British soldiers operate under the highest possible standards and with strict rules of engagement. The vast majority of service men and women act within the law in the service of their country. In any conflict there are of course exceptions to this. However, the majority of victims and veterans do not seek a blanket amnesty from prosecutions; they seek fair and equitable justice.
Regrettably, in recent decades we have witnessed a two-tiered approach to these sensitive issues. In some instances, decisions have been taken to shield the victim-maker rather than deliver justice. As it relates to Northern Ireland specifically, the early release of convicted terrorists under the terms of the Belfast agreement, and the subsequent securing of royal pardons through the on-the-runs scheme, equally perverted the criminal justice system. These are historical examples where dangerous legal precedents have been set.
We must at all times work hard to find proportionate answers to these extremely difficult questions. These answers will not be found if we follow a path that finds any equivalence between brave soldiers and the terrorists and criminals they protect us against when on the battlefield. We stand four-square behind our troops. We must support all efforts to ease the burden for our brave soldiers. Our veterans, and today’s service men and women, do not expect the path they have chosen to be an easy path.
I welcome the work that has been done to date, but it is clear that we have still much work to do. I firmly believe that the passage of this Bill into law will make a significant contribution to the improvement of the welfare of our brave service men and women.
My Lords, like other Members I welcome the Bill to the House. I want to briefly focus on two issues: healthcare for our Armed Forces veterans and reinvestigation into service personnel, an issue that my noble friend Lord Browne has already alluded to.
As has already been said, our Armed Forces do a remarkable job to keep the people of this United Kingdom safe and secure in an ever-changing and increasingly dangerous world. We owe them all a debt of gratitude for their courage and devotion to duty. The sacrifices of our Armed Forces at home and abroad must never be forgotten. Across the United Kingdom, there are 2.5 million veterans and it is vital that they are not simply left to fend for themselves once they return from active service. Our Armed Forces veterans continue to need support for housing, unemployment and vital public services such as improved Toggle showing location of Column 752healthcare. It is only right that those who have sustained life-changing injuries in the service of this nation should receive the best medical care available. When our brave men and women return from a tour of duty, many need assistance when reintegrating into society after the physical and mental challenges they have sustained while serving across the world.
Regrettably, too often the promises made have not matched the reality experienced by service communities, from poor housing provisions to veterans’ poor mental health and social care. We must continue to improve these services and, where we can, support sensible, practical and long-lasting protection for our military personnel. I fully support any legislation that will improve the lives of our forces personnel.
In return for their service, the Armed Forces should enjoy our strongest possible support as we work towards ensuring that our brave men and women get the best possible mental health and well-being provisions available, during and after their service. We must also ensure that, across the United Kingdom, they benefit equally—and in full—from the protection within the covenant. Regrettably, there have been attempts to block the full implementation of the covenant as it relates to Northern Ireland. All forces personnel and veterans across these islands should be able to avail equally of the same quality service, protection and support made available via the covenant. There should be no difference between the services offered in different parts of the United Kingdom.
I will focus briefly on equal justice; more especially, the matter of reinvestigation into service personnel. Operation Banner remains the longest continuous deployment in British military history. Without the bravery and long-lasting commitment of our security personnel, the reign of terror in Northern Ireland would have led to the deaths of many more innocent victims. Veterans and victims are searching for fairness and balance in how justice is served. Nobody is suggesting that military veterans, security forces or anyone else should be above the law or able to act with impunity. However, veterans rightly expect to be afforded natural justice and fairness.
Investigations into previous cases ought to be balanced. It is wrong that former members of the security services have been subject to different sets of standards and rules, despite the fact that 90% of the deaths during the Troubles were caused by terrorists. We have the unseemly situation where thousands of innocent victims of terrorist organisations have been denied justice. As we have done in the past, it is important to say again that we oppose any attempt to introduce an amnesty for criminal actions of terrorists or gangs. There should be no amnesty for anyone who perpetrated wrongdoing.
Broadly speaking, no legal or moral equivalence can be drawn between Armed Forces acting under the rule of law and terrorists who set out to murder and clearly acted outside the law. Affording some form of legal protection to Armed Forces in conflicts at home and abroad against repeated historical reinvestigation is one thing; the possible introduction of a blanket amnesty for anybody is another.
We all must work to provide the services and protections that are needed for our Armed Forces and service personnel. However, what recent discussions have there Toggle showing location of Column 753been with the Northern Ireland Executive on the full implementation of the military covenant in Northern Ireland?