Analysis: Better legal advice needed to avoid a repeat showing

REVELATIONS that former Guantanamo Bay detainees will receive millions of pounds in compensation after accusing the security services of collusion in torture is only the latest war crimes scandal to rock the UK government.

The payments themselves come with the whiff of cover-up, with payouts apparently being preferable to having the activities of MI5 and MI6 exposed to the scrutiny of a High Court action.

The government is already likely to face a separate, and hefty, High Court compensation bill from Iraqis who claim they suffered torture at the hands of British troops. That claim includes evidence of a Ministry of Defence interrogation instruction manual issued to troops which condones coercion techniques that seem at first sight to be a violation of the international torture convention.

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Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence has yet to report on what investigations were carried out following the deaths of more than a dozen civilians at the hands of British troops in Iraq made public last month by the website Wikileaks. Any irregularities in these incidents could see another slew of court cases.

Put all that together and it is clear that the security forces - those in uniform and those in suits - have gone into battle in the "War on Terror" in woeful ignorance of the law.

To his credit, Prime Minister David Cameron seems aware of the problem. The statement of MI6's newish chief, John Sawers, that his officers do not engage in torture, goes some way towards drawing a line under past events.

The appointment of Mr Sawers by the previous government is itself indicative of a desire for change: he was a Foreign Office diplomat, not an MI6 operative, and his appointment seems like a move to "clean the stables" in a security service blamed both for collusion in torture and dodgy dossiers.

Mr Cameron seems also to realise that to draw a line under something is easier when that something is exposed to the light - though his promised inquiry into who did what, in terms of torture, among the security services seems likely to exclude any evidence regarding collusion at Guantanamo Bay.

But if the government really wants to get serious about war crimes, it needs to make sure that the troops, and security agents, get proper information about just what laws are out there and how they might affect their actions.

Amid all the cost-cutting, a modest investment in a proper war crimes unit for all the security services will in the long run save lives, money and face.