A planned “amnesty” for troops has been jettisoned from the Queen’s Speech in favour of laws on “sustainable cat litter”, in a bitter blow to Northern Ireland veterans facing prosecution.
Boris Johnson had promised to end the witch hunt of soldiers over historic allegations during the Troubles as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But to the disgust of former soldiers, many of them in their 60s and 70s, a new law that would have given them protection from prosecution has been omitted from Monday’s Queen’s Speech.
Sources insist Mr Johnson had wanted to include a new law that would have given extra protection to troops but was deterred by his own policy advisers within Downing Street and by concerns raised by officials in the Northern Ireland Office.
The proposed law would have included a statutory presumption against prosecution for current or former personnel for alleged offences committed in the course of duty more than ten years ago.
It would also have required compelling new evidence to reopen old cases and stipulated that historic prosecutions were not in the public interest unless in exceptional circumstances.
A well-placed source inside Whitehall said they were bitterly disappointed that the protection for veterans had been ditched. “You will find more about sustainable cat litter in the Queen’s Speech than you will about veterans,” said a source
The source added: “There will be nothing in there for veterans. It’s very disappointing. Boris wanted it in there but the people around him showed a lack of interest in having it included in the Queen’s Speech.”
General Lord Dannatt, a former chief of the general staff, said he was “disappointed” and said ministers would face a continuing campaign by military leaders, MPs and veterans.
“We owe it to former soldiers particularly those who served in Northern Ireland. It’s for Parliament and retired service chiefs to be doing something - and be seen to do something - about it,” he said.
Michael Fallon, a former Conservative Defence Secretary, said: “At the very least, we want a commitment next week in the speech or during the debate about the Queen Speech that cases already investigated will not be reopened.”
It is understood the Northern Ireland Office had been uneasy about inserting an effective amnesty for troops who served during the Troubles, because the issue is so politically sensitive.
Campaigners had expected a compromise where Northern Ireland might be excluded from the proposed legislation but planned to lay amendments during the bill’s passage through Parliament.
Senior military leaders and more than 150 MPs and peers had lobbied for the new law, among them Colonel Bob Stewart, a Conservative MP sitting on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and General Lord Ramsbotham, a former chief inspector of prisons.
They were among signatories of a letter with Lord Dannatt and Mr Fallon calling for the bill to be included in the Queen’s Speech.
“No one is above the law but there now must be a law to protect those whose selfless service has been to uphold the law. The prime minister has promised action — he must now make good his promise,” they said.
A handful of soldiers remain under criminal investigation for unlawful killings in Iraq and Afghansitan although the vast majority of allegations were shut down after Phil Shiner, a British lawyer who had brought hundreds of complaints of abuse, including torture, was struck off for dishonesty.
But up to 200 ex-soldiers who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles remain under investigation and face possible prosecution. There are at least four prosecutions under way for murder and attempted murder which could not have been prevented by a new law.
A well-placed source said: “the Northern Ireland office are very, very nervous about bringing in any new law that tries to stop the prosecution of troops without the agreement of the Stormont Assembly.”
A Number 10 spokesman said: "The PM has been clear that we need to end the unfair trials of people who served their country when no new evidence has been produced and when the accusations have already been exhaustively questioned in court.
"There are different views on how to move forward and effectively address the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland - that said, we are determined to make progress and legislate on the issue of legacy prosecutions.
"Our clear and overriding objective remains to provide a better way to address the past for all those affected by the Troubles – the Northern Ireland Office has consulted on the question of legacy prosecutions and we are engaging with the main parties in Northern Ireland, MPs in Westminster and wider society across Northern Ireland on the issue. This is so that we can reach a broad consensus and set out detailed, balanced and fair proposals on the best way forward."
Another new law to be announced in the Queen's Speech will see planes and crews from collapsed airlines will be used to bring home stranded passengers in future as the government seeks to avoid a repeat of the Thomas Cook debacle.
Administrators will be able to make use of the assets of firms which have gone bust to save the government sourcing planes from around the world under the plans.
Under the existing system, when an airline goes bust its planes are grounded, leaving passengers at risk of being stranded.
When the Government wanted to ensure Thomas Cook customers would be repatriated last month, it had to ask the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to secure the use of 150 aircraft from around the world to operate nearly 700 flights at a cost of £100 million.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: "I’m determined to bring in a better system to deal with similar situations in future, helping ensure passengers are protected and brought home quickly and safely."