Ben Wallace – 2021 Statement on Closure of Service Police Legacy Investigations in Iraq

The statement made by Ben Wallace, the Secretary of State for Defence, in the House of Commons on 18 October 2021.

In February 2017, the then Secretary of State for Defence announced that the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) would close and any remaining Iraq legacy investigations would be reintegrated into the service police system. Service Police Legacy Investigations (SPLI), led by a senior Royal Navy Police officer, took over these remaining investigations at the beginning of July 2017.

I can today announce that the SPLI completed its investigative caseload in December 2020 and, following the completion of administrative functions, officially closed its doors on 30 September 2021.

In total, SPLI assessed 1,291 allegations, of which 178 were pursued through 55 separate investigations. The SPLI complied fully with the requirements of the Armed Forces Act 2006—in referring cases to or consulting the Service Prosecuting Authority (SPA)—and with the High Court’s direction to work closely with the SPA to ensure cases were completed as promptly as possible while maintaining the necessary rigour. None of the IHAT or SPLI investigations have resulted in any prosecutions.

One significant challenge throughout the investigations was the issue of the credibility of allegations made against UK service personnel. While we accept that some allegations were credible, this does not detract from the fact we know, from the investigations and from the Al-Sweady public inquiry, that some were not. We know that Phil Shiner, formerly of Public Interest Lawyers, obtained Iraqi clients improperly—through the use of financial incentives—and acted with a lack of integrity. In 2017, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal found allegations of misconduct when representing claims against British soldiers—including dishonesty—proven to the criminal standard of proof and he was struck off the Roll of Solicitors.

The vast majority of the more than 140,000 members of our armed forces who served in Iraq did so honourably. Many sadly suffered injuries or death, with devastating consequences for them and their families.

However, not all allegations and claims were spurious, otherwise investigations would not have proceeded beyond initial examination and no claims for compensation would have been paid. It is sadly clear, from all the investigations the UK conducted, that some shocking and shameful incidents did happen in Iraq. We recognise that there were four convictions of UK military personnel for offences in Iraq, including offences of assault and inhuman treatment. The Government’s position is clear—we deplore and condemn all such incidents.

It is also clear that in some cases the original Royal Military Police investigations— conducted in arduous, battlefield conditions, with limited resources and under strict force protection measures—did not manage to secure all the required evidence, with the result that opportunities to hold those responsible to account may now have been lost. I apologise unreservedly to all those who suffered treatment at the hands of UK forces which was unacceptable.

The closure of SPLI marks the completion of the remaining investigations stemming from operations in Iraq. However, we are aware that further serious allegations may arise in the future, and that where credible these would have to be investigated in line with our obligations under international and domestic law.

Looking ahead, any historical criminal allegations will be referred to the Defence Serious Crime Unit. This was recommended in the Lyons/Murphy Review of the Service Justice System, and is further supported by Sir Richard Henriques, a retired judge who I appointed to conduct a review of how allegations on operations are raised and investigated. His review will help ensure we have the best possible framework, skills and processes in place, should this be necessary in the future.

The completion of the SPLI investigations brings us closer to the end of a decade of extensive litigation and large-scale investigations. While the Iraq fatality inspector continues to look at a small number of remaining cases, we can start to draw a line under the legacy of our operations in Iraq and to focus on the future.