May to protect British troops from conflict prosecutions

Veterans and their families have welcomed plans to give British troops protection against prosecutions arising from future conflicts.

Theresa May is to introduce an automatic opt-out from certain aspects of human rights law during times of war.

It comes after veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have been pursued through the courts over alleged mistreatment of combatants and prisoners.

Under changes being announced at the Conservative conference, the prime minister said the move should end an "industry of vexatious claims" and reduce the burden on taxpayers, which has seen the Ministry of Defence spend more than £100 million on Iraq-related investigations, inquiries and compensation since 2004.

Reg Keys, whose son Tom was killed aged 20 while guarding a police station in Iraq in 2003, applauded the move, saying: "It's not for politicians and lawyers to look at the actions of British service personnel in a war zone and the decisions that had to be made.

"The fact that this has now been abandoned makes me breathe a sigh of relief because we ask our troops to do a very difficult job under very difficult circumstances."

Reg Keys, whose son Tom was killed in Iraq. Credit: PA

He added: "These lawyers pushing this are ambulance chasers of the very worst kind. It's an abomination and they (the lawyers) should be ashamed of themselves.

"I would like to think that those already under threat of prosecution will be looked at again."

Johnny Mercer MP, a former Army captain who served in Helmand province, welcomed the decision and said the situation should never have been allowed to arise.

He said: "To continue to try and apply human rights laws in combat represented a fundamental misunderstanding by ministers about what we are asking our people to do to keep us safe."

Mrs May last month raised concerns over the "industrial scale" of claims lodged with the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, which was set up in November 2010 to look into allegations of murder, abuse and torture of Iraqi civilians by UK military personnel between 2003 and 2009.

Some 326 cases have been settled with the payment of around £20 million in compensation, but concerns have been raised about servicemen facing investigation even after having been cleared of wrongdoing by criminal courts.

Theresa May last month raised concerns over the 'industrial scale' of claims. Credit: PA

The 1953 European Convention permits signatories to suspend their obligation to observe certain human rights responsibilities "in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation".

But the procedure - known as "derogation" - may not be used in respect of the right to life and prohibitions on torture, slavery and retrospective criminal penalties.

Mrs May said: "Our armed forces are the best in the world and the men and women who serve make huge sacrifices to keep us safe.

"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."

Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon added: "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."

Des James, father of father of Private Cheryl James, who died at Deepcut Barracks, said the ECHR provides 'essential' protection. Credit: PA Wire

Martha Spurrier, director of human rights group Liberty, criticised the plans and accused the Ministry of Defence of preparing to "rob" soldiers of a legal framework that clarifies their use of force and offers them redress when their own rights are breached.

Des James, father of Private Cheryl James, who died at Deepcut Barracks in 1995, said: “The European Convention on Human Rights – and the Human Rights Act which enforces it in the UK – is an essential protection for military families seeking the truth when the government is trying to cover up its failings at any cost.

"It was the tool that let me force authorities to release evidence that secured the wide-ranging inquest into the death of my daughter Cheryl at Deepcut Barracks."

Mr James added: "Our troops need human rights protections just as much as everyone else – we must not let politicians scrap legislation that has proved so crucial for so many people."