On Wednesday 27 January 2016, Victoria Prentis MP spoke in a Westminster Hall debate about the Iraq Historical Allegations Team (IHAT), which has recently come under considerable scrutiny. IHAT is an organisation set up to review and investigate allegations of abuse by UK armed forces personnel against Iraqi civilians during the period of 2003 to July 2009. The debate was secured by Richard Benyon MP, who served as an officer in the British Army for four years.
Contributing to the proceedings, Victoria called on her experience as head of the Ministry of Defence’s litigation team in the Treasury Solicitor’s Department. As a senior civil service lawyer, Victoria dealt with many of the IHAT cases during her career, and was closely involved in the planning and preparation of the Government’s response.
Victoria’s contribution was welcomed by several other speakers, including Tom Tugendhat MBE MP, and the Minister for the Armed Forces, Penny Mordaunt MP.
The full text of Victoria’s speech can be found below:
“I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for his kind words and for calling for the debate. I will try to reduce my speech in so far as I can, but these matters did concern me in my working life for many years. I was in charge of the MOD’s litigation team in Treasury Solicitor’s Department when the claims started flooding in in 2010. We faced a tsunami of litigation. I am not going to talk about individual cases, but I will give some recommendations from my experience.
First, IHAT was the least bad option available. The civil courts are not the place for criminal investigations to take place. Some of the claims made were very serious and needed to be investigated. IHAT is independent but secure. It is staffed by excellent officers who can investigate criminal allegations. Unlike the Baha Mousa inquiry, for example, they can refer cases to the Service Prosecuting Authority. Given where we are at the moment, IHAT should be encouraged to press on, but we should find new ways to deal with such issues in any future conflict.
Secondly, lawyers should not act without real clients with whom they are in touch and from whom they can take instructions. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!] If, for example, offers of settlement are made, it is essential that a lawyer can get in touch with their client immediately; anything less makes litigation impossible.
Thirdly, access by IHAT officers to the Iraqi complainant should have been provided with speed, but it was not. I can see no explanation for that at all. There is no need, nor is it usual in police investigations, for those who complain of a crime to be represented by a lawyer from the other side of the world.
Fourthly, our disclosure rules should not be used to pervert the course of litigation and push the Ministry of Defence into a position where it feels it cannot defend itself or its soldiers. Fifthly, I support scrutiny of whether legal aid should be available to non-UK nationals bringing action against the Government. That money, in my view, would be much better spent on rebuilding Iraq than on lawyers based in the UK.
Sixthly, I think the UK should derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights—I am certainly no anti-European—whenever we deploy soldiers abroad. The authors of the convention, who were writing at a time when the horror of the holocaust and the battlefield was still fresh, intended international humanitarian law to apply to soldiers. International humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict is robust law, designed for that very purpose; the ECHR is not.
In conclusion, we are not dealing in the main with the fog of the battlefield, but rather with the confusion of detention and interrogation. In Iraq, soldiers were detaining men who minutes before might have been shooting at them or killing their friends or who were believed to have had information that might have helped us to prevent further attacks on our troops. They were usually not in custody suites, offices or cells, and time for gathering information was perilously short. It was hot, everyone was armed, prisoners might have to be moved swiftly off a battlefield, and tempers sometimes frayed.
It is of course never acceptable to breach International Humanitarian law, but minor mistreatment can and should be dealt with quickly and on site, via the chain of command. More major and systemic breaches do need to be tackled at a higher level, but again as quickly as possible, so that lessons can be learnt. Most importantly, we do not want our soldiers to feel they are in a position where they should take no prisoners.” (Victoria Prentis MP, 27 January 2016)