We have 15,000 serving military personnel here in Wiltshire, 15,000 dependents, and 54,000 veterans; we have umpteen military bases including Lyneham, Hullavington, Colerne and Corsham here in the North of the County; and of course we have the largest military training area in Britain on our doorsteps at Salisbury Plain. So a very real part of the culture and way of life in Wiltshire is determined by the military.
The military covenant- the bargain that society strikes with our soldiers sailors and airmen and women, was perhaps epitomised by the 167 times the people of Royal Wootton Bassett turned out to honour the 345 service people whose bodies passed down their High Street. We ourselves would not do some of the things that we ask of our service men and women, and so we promise to look after them and their families in every way possible. That is the Military Covenant which this Government passed into law in 2011.
That’s why (as well as through personal interest) I spend such a large part of my time in Parliament on defence matters. I am a member of the Commons Defence Committee and Chairman of their sub-committee currently looking into defence matters in the Arctic; I am Chairman of the All Party Group for the Armed Services and Chairman of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust; and recently became Patron of the excellent charity which sends Christmas boxes of a very high quality to our troops overseas.
All of that is why I feel so very strongly about the way in which the law currently seems to be hounding our armed forces. A soldier who commits a true crime must pay the penalty like anyone else. But the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, IHAT, which has ‘investigated’ up to 4000 soldiers, many of them accused by disgraced Public Interest Lawyer, Phil Shiner, must be stopped. There have been no convictions at all so far, a cost of £90 million, and the lives of 4000 soldiers and their families ruined for up to ten years. We will be bringing out a report on the matter next week, but I would be very surprised if it did anything other than outrightly condemn IHAT, and the MOD which sponsored them.
We risk doing something similar in Northern Ireland where various aging paras have recently been arrested for ‘crimes’ for which they were acquitted forty years ago. This is an outrage, and it must be stopped. There is something of an amnesty for terrorists under the Good Friday Agreement, yet we seem determined to harass these distinguished old soldiers. Soldiers have to do things on the battle field which we civilians can only imagine. They must be left to get on with their very difficult jobs without fear of civilian prosecution for the rest of their lives.
The Military Covenant demands that we look after our soldiers and their families. It should also protect them from unreasonable criminal or civil legal actions for years after their service. They carry out orders to protect us. We must now protect them.