Conservative MPs have warned they will “harry” the Government over the “betrayal” of military veterans after their bid to protect them from fresh investigations was branded “dangerous” by a minister.
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley told Tory backbenchers that their proposal for a 20-year time limit on reopening cases involving former members of the armed forces who served in Northern Ireland would “undermine the rule of law”.
More than 30 Tory MPs supported the proposal although it was later withdrawn “very reluctantly” by former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon, partly due to opposition from Northern Ireland MPs over its current drafting.
But the Government was warned in no uncertain terms over the strength of feeling among some Tory MPs about the need for change.
Former defence minister Mark Francois told the Commons: “We’re going to keep coming back, debate after debate, motion after motion, and we’re going to harry this Government on behalf of those veterans until they do the right thing and provide some protection for those people who protected us.”
Johnny Mercer, a former army officer and now MP for Plymouth Moor View, said he felt “personal shame” over the issue before adding: “I feel like I’m part of a Government that is essentially promoting a cowards’ charter when it comes to looking after our servicemen and women.”
The Tory MP also said: “I cannot tell you, or I don’t have the words to express, the utter betrayal of this place and currently this Government of those who have served, and I want to see it end.”
Closing the debate, Sir Michael welcomed Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s earlier announcement that a team has been established in the Ministry of Defence to consider proposals to protect armed forces veterans from prosecution for historical allegations, also known as a statute of limitations.
But Sir Michael added: “I would give (Ms Bradley) this warning... this House will not now rest on this matter.
“She said, I think, this was the wrong vehicle - it may well be the wrong vehicle but it is for the Government to find the right vehicle to act on the views that have been expressed tonight and to see finally that justice is done to those who served to protect us.”
Sir Michael had tabled his amendment to the Northern Ireland Budget (No 2) Bill.
It aimed to stop public money being used to fund historical prosecutions of former service personnel in Northern Ireland.
Ms Bradley, replying for the Government to the proposal, had said: “The Government cannot accept this amendment because it does undermine the rule of law.
“The effect of the amendment would be to remove the ability of the public prosecution service in Northern Ireland to prosecute former soldiers for the next 12 months, even in circumstances were new evidence has come to light which the original investigation could not have considered and which the prosecution believed could lead to a conviction.”
She added: “As a Conservative who believes fundamentally in the rule of law and central to that is the independence of our prosecuting authorities.
“I believe that however well intentioned it does lead into some very dangerous territory, it would undermine and erode hard won support for the criminal justice system within Northern Ireland.
“It would be used by those who wish to rewrite the history of the Troubles, to reinforce their claims that the UK Government has something to hide and is primarily concerned with covering up the actions of our armed forces.”
Sir Michael had earlier said his amendment was necessary to stop the “hounding” of veterans.
He said: “Veterans who put their lives on the line for the rest of us can fear that knock on the door, can be hauled from their beds, arrested, flown to Belfast, put into a cell and indicted for an offence that may or may not have been committed 30 or 40 years before.
“That can’t be right.”
The Bill, which MPs heard authorised Northern Ireland departments and other bodies to spend up to £8.9 billion and use resources of up to £9.9 billion for the financial year ending March 31 2019 due to the lack of an executive, cleared all its stages without amendment.
It will undergo further scrutiny in the Lords.