We rightly expect the highest standards of our service personnel. We also owe them justice and fairness. On 18 March 2020, I introduced the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill to tackle vexatious claims and end the cycle of reinvestigations against our armed forces personnel and veterans.
I associate myself with the good wishes to the Minister and his wife. In my constituency, Workington, there is an active veterans hub, members of which I met earlier this year. What support can the Department provide for our veterans as they leave the forces to find alternative employment in Workington and other areas across Britain?
I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to talk about the options available in his area. More money and more opportunities than ever before are going into veterans employment. As I said earlier, it is the single biggest factor that improves the life chances of any veteran and their family. I am always looking to do more, and I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to go through what is available in his area.
A veteran with an exemplary record from his two tours in Afghanistan recently confided in me his concerns—and, more worryingly, those of soldiers he served with who come from towns in my constituency such as Arnold and Carlton—about being prosecuted as a result of vexatious claims in the future. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is our duty to ensure that we end the unfair trials of people who have served their country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This has been one of my driving missions since I entered Parliament. I am delighted to be part of the first Government to have really taken on a very difficult issue, carefully walking down the path of making sure that we can always prosecute those who break the law—uniform is no hiding place for those who do—but that the days of lawyers rewriting history in order to line their own pockets and run amok in lawfare come to an end.
Any action the Minister takes is likely to require a derogation from the European convention on human rights. Given that the ECHR is part of the apparatus of the Council of Europe, will he meet members of the parliamentary delegation to the Assembly, such as myself, so that we can help?
I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. I have said time and again that this is a difficult issue and one that requires all of us to work together, both within parties and across parties. The House is united in the view that people who serve and who have done nothing wrong should not spend the rest of their lives fearing prosecution. I would be delighted to work with my hon. Friend to discover what more we can do to make sure that measure is brought forward.
The Government are the custodians of the armed forces covenant, which Labour has always been proud to support. The covenant rightly declares:
“Those who serve in the Armed Forces…those who have served in the past, and their families, should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services”,
so why are the Government now legislating to disadvantage our own armed forces personnel who serve overseas by blocking any injury or negligence claim against the Ministry of Defence if troops miss a hard six-year deadline?
With the greatest respect, I think the right hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the Bill. Veterans and service personnel will still be able to bring claims against the MOD, even if more than six years have elapsed. The time starts when the condition is diagnosed or when it is first reported. I reiterate that the Bill is a difficult piece of legislation that will need help from all parts of the House to pass. It is worth reading and understanding it, so that we can find a way to make sure the injustice ends.
Of course, I have read the legislation, and the word “diagnosis” does not appear in it. The Minister is right about baseless and repeated claims; we want to stop those as well, but in part the Bill does more to protect the MOD than it does to protect British soldiers. The Bill may well breach our armed forces covenant; it certainly will deny those who serve our country overseas the same employer liability rights as everyone else enjoys at home. Why should those who put their lives on the line for Britain overseas have less access to compensation than the UK civilians they defend?
I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reflect briefly on whether I would advocate a piece of legislation that would do that. The Bill does not do that. It is clear that we are bringing in various conditions to stop our service personnel and veterans repeatedly having to give evidence in relation to historical incidents or to respond to allegations. It has been a long time in the making; the injustice has gone on for many years. What he is saying is simply not in the Bill. I would be more than happy to meet him and Members from all parts of the House to discuss what is in the Bill. We need to work together to get the Bill over the line.