British soldiers will never again face a legal witch hunt, Theresa May will pledge as she says that European human rights laws will no longer apply on the battlefield.
In a joint announcement with Sir Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, the Prime Minister will say that UK troops will be protected from the “industry of vexatious claims that has pursued those who served in previous conflicts”.
Mrs May and Sir Michael will say that in future conflicts Britain will opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), protecting our frontline forces from “spurious” legal claims.
Their intervention is a major victory for soldiers, MPs and senior military figures who have fought against the hounding of troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan over allegations that date back as long ago as 2003.
The Telegraph has repeatedly highlighted the plight of British troops facing criminal and civil allegations of abuse in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Former soldier: Baseless war crimes investigations are ‘ruining lives’ Play! 01:41
The claims, in which “victims” used the ECHR to demand millions of pounds in compensation, prompted Sir Michael to describe the treatment of soldiers as a “witch-hunt”.
The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat) is investigating almost 1,500 allegations of mistreatment and unlawful killing of Iraqis, while a separate inquiry, Operation Northmoor, is looking at more than 550 allegations of abuse in Afghanistan dating back to 2005.
Mrs May told Sky News’s Sunrise: “Our troops – our men and women in our armed forces – go out there and put their lives on the line in order to defend us and do things that most people wouldn’t be willing to do, in terms of going out and potentially paying the ultimate sacrifice for us.
“I think they should 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 all these vexatious claims and troops finding themselves inn some difficulty and worrying and concerned about the future as a result of that.
“I think it’s absolutely right that the Government should say to our troops ‘We are on your side’.
“Of course, if there are credible allegations of criminal behaviour, those need to be infestigated, but we need to stop this industry of vexatious claims which has grown up, with lawyers appearing to chase around to find anybody who will bring a claim against our troops.”
Mrs May stressed that UK forces will at all times be required to operate in accordance with international humanitarian law – including the Geneva Conventions – and service law.
As part of Tuesday’s announcement, the Government will set a time limit after which no new cases can be brought.
Those who serve on the frontline will have our support when they come homeTheresa May
There are also plans to reduce the financial incentives allowing legal firms to bring cases against British troops on a “no win, no fee” basis.
Mrs May will say: “Our armed forces are the best in the world and the men and women who serve make huge sacrifices to keep us safe.
“My Government will ensure that our troops are recognised for the incredible job they do. Those who serve on the frontline will have our support when they come home.
“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.”
Sir Michael will add: “Our legal system has been abused to level false charges against our troops on an industrial scale. It has caused significant distress to people who risked their lives to protect us, it has cost the taxpayer millions and there is a real risk it will stop our armed forces doing their job.
“This change is an important step towards putting that right – a key commitment the Conservative Party made in last year’s general election.”
He added: “It will help to protect our troops from vexatious claims and ensure they can confidently take difficult decisions on the battlefield.”
Rules governing conflict will in future fall under the Geneva Convention, which allows lethal force as a first resort against enemy combatants. Sources made clear that whether to “derogate” – or opt out – of the ECHR would be made on a case by case basis.
However, there would always be a “presumption” that European human rights laws would not apply to frontline troops in any future conflict.
Since 2004, the MoD has spent more than £100 million on Iraq-related investigations, inquiries and compensation.
To apply European Human Rights law to combat situations has been a grave abuse of both human rights lawJohnny Mercer, Conservative MP
Just two law firms have received millions of pounds in bringing claims against the MoD for events in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Lawyers are able to bring “no win, no fee” claims, which allows them to bill extra costs in the event that they win damages for clients. The law firms that have brought the cases – Leigh Day and Public Interest Lawyers – are both facing disciplinary action by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal over alleged irregularities.
Johnny Mercer, the Conservative MP who is chairing a parliamentary inquiry into the treatment of Afghan and Iraq war veterans, said: “I am delighted with this announcement from the Prime Minister.
To apply European Human Rights law to combat situations has been a grave abuse of both human rights law and our soldiers whom we have asked to fight on our behalf.