Williamson announces team to consider proposals to protect armed forces veterans

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A team has been established in the Ministry of Defence to consider proposals to protect armed forces veterans from prosecution for historical allegations, Gavin Williamson has announced.

The Defence Secretary told MPs he understands concerns over whether current and former personnel were receiving the legal protection they deserve, amid calls for a statute of limitations.

During defence questions in the Commons, Tory former minister Sir Henry Bellingham asked Mr Williamson if he would bring forward legislative proposals for a statute of limitations to protect British armed forces veterans from prosecution for historical allegations.

Mr Williamson replied: “I understand concerns over whether serving and former personnel are receiving the legal protection and certainty that they deserve.

“I am therefore pleased to announce that I have established a dedicated team within the Ministry of Defence to consider this issue and to advise on the way forward.

“This work will be complementary to the work of the Defence Committee who are looking at the specific question of how to protect our service personnel and veterans against historic allegations as part of their inquiry into this important topic.”

Defence Committee chairman and Conservative MP Julian Lewis said his committee would “warmly welcome the setting up of a dedicated team”.

The announcement comes hours before MPs debate the Northern Ireland Budget (No 2) Bill, which former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon is seeking to amend to stop public money being used to fund historical prosecutions of former service personnel in Northern Ireland.

He will urge MPs to back changes to the Bill to prevent funds being spent on reopening cases involving former members of the armed forces who served in the province before the Good Friday Agreement.

Sir Michael said: “It’s morally wrong that those who served to keep us safe from terrorism should be threatened with possible imprisonment in respect of allegations made 30 or 40 years ago which have already been investigated, while some of the terrorists themselves have been guaranteed immunity from prosecution through comfort letters.

“We need to stop hounding our own brave servicemen and women, and stop it now.”

The amendment to the Bill, which will come before the Commons on Monday afternoon, has cross-party support and has been signed by 34 MPs.

It follows reports that Mr Williamson wrote to Theresa May urging her to create a “statute of limitations” for offences during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, in the wake of new plans to examine criminal cases.

He reportedly told the Prime Minister that British soldiers who served in the region from the 1970s to the 1990s should have the “protection they deserve”, adding: “If this means a wider amnesty, so be it.”

But Downing Street has said it “cannot countenance a proposal where amnesties would be provided to terrorists”.

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley, moving the Bill at second reading, said: “Passing this budget Bill does not remove the pressing need to have locally accountable political leaders in place to take the fundamental decisions that will secure a more sustainable future for the people of Northern Ireland.”

She said the Bill authorises Northern Ireland departments and other bodies to incur expenditure of up to £8.9 billion and use resources of up to £9.9 billion for the financial year ending March 31 2019.

Ms Bradley said it was a “technical” budget Bill although she added she was not dismissing the “constitutional significance” of the UK Parliament delivering this to Northern Ireland.

DUP MP Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) said: “This is a difficult budget, in cash terms, it’s a flat budget and the amount of money available to Government departments in Northern Ireland is no different than it was in the previous year, and that does present challenges.”

Mr Wilson added the challenges included allocations being based on decisions taken by the assembly nearly two and a half years ago.

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