Committee (2nd Day)
Relevant documents: 9th Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 30th and 36th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 11: Court’s discretion to extend time in certain Human Rights Act proceedings
21: Clause 11, page 7, line 23, at end insert—
“(c) the importance of the proceedings in securing the rights of the claimant.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment adds a further consideration to which UK courts must have particular regard when determining whether to disapply the standard HRA limitation period of one year so as to ensure that the claimant’s interest in having their claim proceed is not subordinated.
My Lords, I will start with a quote on how the court approaches the extinction of the limitation period in any category of case:
“It is for the court to examine in the circumstances of each case all the relevant factors and then decide whether it is equitable to provide for a longer period. It may be necessary in the circumstances of a particular case to look at objective and subjective factors; proportionality will generally be taken into account. It is not in my view appropriate to say that one particular factor has as a matter of general approach a greater weight than others. The court should look at the matter broadly and attach such weight as is appropriate in each given case.”
I am quoting from the judgment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, in the case of Dunn v Parole Board in 2008.
The standard limitation period is three years for tortious claims for personal injury and wrongful death, and one year for claims under the Human Rights Act. The limitation periods can be extended by an application to the court on the principles I have quoted.
This Bill introduces factors in Clause 8(1)(b) and in paragraph 1(4) of Schedule 1 and—in relation to Human Rights Act claims—in Clause 11(2), which inserts new Section 7A into the Human Rights Act. The purpose of introducing these additional factors that a court must take into account in claims arising from overseas operations is to introduce a degree of bias into the equation. The Bill requires that the court pay “particular regard” to the impact of the operational context on the ability of members of HM Forces to fully or accurately recall events and the degree of
“dependence on the memory of such individuals”
for the cogency of the evidence, as well as the impact on the mental health of Her Majesty’s Forces witnesses caused by the proceedings.
Over the past 20 years, in the field of criminal law and procedure, the victim has been put at the forefront. I think it was the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, who emphasised that, in particular when she was Attorney-General. Everything has been done to try to make it easy for victims in criminal courts to complain in the first place—not least in cases involving sexual offences. Special measures have been introduced to that end.
In dealing with civil claims by victims, the thrust of this Bill is entirely to reverse that position. The concentration is now on fairness to the alleged perpetrators of the acts from which the victims suffered and which are the foundation of their claims. Special weight must be given to a declaration by a serving soldier or veteran of the possibility that his memory will be affected and his comfort zone invaded by the stresses and strains of giving evidence about things he would prefer to forget. This is so even if the victim happens to be a fellow service man or woman. It is not even as if this hurdle is placed on people because they are foreigners whose country we have invaded in order to save them from the particular regime under which they are suffering. It would of course be disgraceful if such a distinction were ever made between service victims and foreign victims. So what is the rationale for these provisions which introduce factors to alter the balance of which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, spoke, and weigh down in favour of the MoD?
On Tuesday, I spoke about vexatious claims. I pointed out that I witnessed an Iraqi woman withdrawing her claims of sexual assault and admitting in court that they were false. There were vexatious claims, stirred up by English lawyers for their own gain. Our legal system is robust and it dealt with the claims by striking them out and by disciplinary actions against the lawyers concerned which effectively removed them from circulation.
But not every claim brought by a victim is vexatious. We have to face the fact that some are legitimate. As I said on Tuesday, my Written Questions to the Minister on 2 June 2020 revealed that, since 2003, 1,330 claims arising from the treatment of foreign victims by British personnel had been accepted and £32 million paid in compensation. The Answer to my Questions also revealed that not a single serviceman, however responsible he might have been for the victim’s claim, has had to pay damages or compensation out of his own resources. The MoD has covered them all—and it claims that it does not settle claims which it does not believe to be meritorious.
If we look elsewhere for confirmation, in its final report published on 9 December 2020 entitled Situation in Iraq/UK, the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court concluded that the information available provides
“a reasonable basis to believe that … members of UK armed forces in Iraq committed the war crime of wilful killing/murder … at a minimum, against seven persons in their custody. The information available provides a reasonable basis to believe that … members of UK armed forces committed the war crime of torture and inhuman/cruel treatment … and the war crime of outrages upon personal dignity …against at least 54 persons in their custody.”
The prosecutor also found that there was a reasonable basis to believe that there were seven victims of sexual violence. It is impossible, regrettable as it may be, to dismiss the claims brought by victims as being vexatious. As a civilised country, we must face up to that fact and ensure as far as we can that the disciplines are in place which prevent these things happening.
If it is accepted that these are proper claims, is it an answer to a victim that his case cannot go forward because the perpetrator from our military has lost his memory or because of the stresses of service, or that whatever the victim may have suffered, that pales into insignificance in the light of the stress of giving evidence in a witness box and recalling past events? Every day in every court in this country, people suffer the stress of the witness box, as I have myself on a number of occasions. Would we ever say to a gang-raped 13 year- old that her case could not go forward because her assailants have lost their memory or that the strain of them giving evidence and recalling what they have done would be too much for them?
That is a general introduction to the topic which arises in the three groups that we will be considering, and I promise that I will not repeat it in relation to the other groups. In this group, I am concerned with the victim. In Clause 11, the court’s general discretion to extend time in Human Rights Act proceedings is to be fettered to require the court or tribunal to have “particular regard to”, first, the ability of the alleged perpetrator to remember or to “record” the events and, secondly,
“the likely impact of the proceedings on the mental health of any witness … who is a member of Her Majesty’s forces.”
Our amendment would add a third factor: namely, the importance of the proceedings in securing the rights of the victim and thus to achieve justice. If the Bill needs to spell out in statutory form the factors that the judge should pay particular regard to, contrary to the general approach of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, which I have quoted, our addition would add the duty to pay particular regard to the rights of the victim. Without our amendment, the judge’s discretion is deliberately skewed by this Bill in favour of the Ministry of Defence.
The rest of our amendments in the group introduce the same third factor: the rights of the victim in all the other contexts and jurisdictions in Scotland and Northern Ireland in which this bias in favour of the MoD appears in the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I cannot hope to improve on the powerful and compelling forensic critique of Part 2 that has just been offered by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, but perhaps I may lend my support to his general approach and that of his noble friend Lady Smith of Newnham in these amendments. They probe and highlight the problems with interfering with judicial discretion in the manner proposed in Part 2.
A lot has been said about the Bill in general being about providing reassurance to our veterans. Reassurance can be important, particularly where it is a practical improvement on problematic law. But when reassurance is more political and is provided against a false problem that has been raised in political rhetoric, we all need to be far more concerned about interfering with judicial discretion. In the other place—although not so much in this place the last time we met—there has sometimes been the language of claims being used in relation to Part 1 and Part 2. Part 1 is about prosecution which, understandably, veterans will fear in certain difficult contexts. However, this is about civil claims, where the presumption of innocence that must and should apply in criminal proceedings does not apply. This ought to be as fair a contest as possible between two civil parties.
Invariably in the context of these claims, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, has set out so clearly, we are talking about the MoD, a great and well-resourced department of state which is the defendant. Sometimes claimants will claim to be the victims of war crimes, but there will also be no small number of veterans themselves. That has been lost in parts of the public discourse and certainly in the debate in the other place. I am therefore grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, for bringing this forward.
The false war between veterans on the one hand and lawyers on the other is particularly pernicious in the context of Part 2 when veterans’ groups and the lawyers who represent them are in concert in their concerns about the way that Part 2 protects the MoD not from false claims, against which the department is well protected, but from genuine claims where, sometimes because of the problems of overseas conflict and the difficulties that veterans themselves have faced in those dangerous situations, six years is too short a time. Some open and well-applied judicial discretion is what is required.
Without further ado, I shall make way for my noble friend Lord Hendy, who I understand has direct experience of representing at least one veteran’s mother.
My Lords, I cannot improve on the powerful contributions made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti. However, perhaps I may add one point of legal detail which might assist. If I make the point now, I will not need to do it in my later contributions.
Section 7(5)(b) of the Human Rights Act 1998 to which these amendments relate provides a one-year time limit or
“such longer period as the court … considers equitable having regard to all the circumstances”.
As regards any application to extend that time period, Clause 11 of this Bill seeks to require the court to have regard to the ability of witnesses in Her Majesty’s forces to remember or to have recorded events and to the impact of the litigation on the mental health of any HM forces witness.
Amendment 21 merely seeks to redress the balance by reference also to the interests of the claimant. It is a modest amendment. The movers might have gone a lot further and brought limitation under the Human Rights Act into line with the parallel provisions of the Limitation Act 1980 in civil cases. I will remind the House briefly of those provisions. They impose a limit of six years for claims in tort or contract, but in Section 3 this is reduced to three years for personal injury claims; that is, three years from the date of the accrual of the cause of action or from the date of knowledge if later. There is much jurisprudence on the date of knowledge, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, alluded to on Tuesday. However, the period can be extended. This is an area of law that is very familiar to anyone who has practised in the field of personal injuries.
Section 33(1) of the Limitation Act 1980 permits a court to allow an action to proceed out of time, if it
“appears … that it would be equitable”,
having regard to the prejudice if it were to do so to the defendant and to the claimant. In addition, Section 33(3) specifies that the court, in making a determination,
“shall have regard to all the circumstances of the case”.
In particular, it must have regard to certain specified factors:
“(a) the length of, and the reasons for, the delay on the part of the plaintiff; (b) the extent to which, having regard to the delay, the evidence adduced or likely to be adduced by the plaintiff or the defendant is or is likely to be less cogent than if the action had been brought within the time”
limits set out in the Act;
“(c) the conduct of the defendant after the cause of action arose, including the extent (if any) to which he responded to requests reasonably made by the plaintiff for information or inspection for the purpose of ascertaining facts which were or might be relevant to the plaintiff’s cause of action … (d) the duration of any disability of the plaintiff arising after the date of the accrual of the cause of action; (e) the extent to which the plaintiff acted promptly and reasonably once he knew”
he might have a claim; and, finally,
“(f) the steps, if any, taken by the plaintiff to obtain medical, legal or other expert advice and the nature of any such advice”.
If the Minister is not minded to concede the modest amendments sought, I commend to him altering the Bill to incorporate these familiar provisions of the Limitation Act, which has worked well in all manner of cases over the last 40 years. No justification appears for imposing harsher limitation provisions for actions in respect of personal injuries or death that relate to overseas operations of the Armed Forces.
This provision in the Bill may save the MoD a few bob, but it will give no reassurance to military personnel who are claimants or to members of their families, such as the lady for whom I acted some years ago, as I explained at Second Reading. Her son had been killed by a shell fired at his tank by another British tank outside Basra. The claim was based on the MoD’s failure to fit the tanks with adequate and available identification kit and to adequately train tank commanders. The case was ultimately settled by the MoD, after many years.
The noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, kindly wrote to me after Second Reading to explain the time limits proposed in the Bill for cases such as this, but I regret to say that, in spite of her clarity in elucidating the Bill, I was not reassured. Military personnel on overseas operations need to know that they—and, if they die, their mums, dads and children—can make a claim against the MoD, if it turns out to be at fault. They should not be subject to hurdles to which other claimants are not subject. The Government need not fear vexatious claims. Anyone who has practised law in this field from bench or bar knows that the courts are astute enough not to permit vexatious claims. The Bill, unamended, will time-bar some vexatious claims, but it will equally time-bar meritorious claims. That is not forgivable. It is no answer to say that there will be few of them; there should be none.
A final point arises from an argument advanced by the Minister in response to Amendment 29, moved by my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer, late on Tuesday night. The Minister suggested that the amendment would result in an unjustifiable difference in treatment between different categories of claimants and that this, therefore, would offend against the European convention. Presumably he had Article 14 in mind, which prohibits discrimination on grounds including “other status”.
Yet these provisions in the Bill impose a difference in treatment between those making a claim for personal injuries or death that relate to overseas operations of the Armed Forces and those who make such a claim that does not relate to overseas operations of the Armed Forces. I and, it appears, many Members of your Lordships’ House regard that as unjustifiable. I would be interested to hear how the Minister justifies that difference in treatment under Article 14 or, indeed, Article 2, which protects life by law.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, not least because he has helpfully set out the provisions in the Limitation Act to which I would have made reference. He also made reference to Section 7(5)(a) of the Human Rights Act, which deals with the limitation period for human rights claims.
The purpose of limitation periods is to provide that it is public policy that there should be an end to litigation, but some people have perfectly good reasons to delay bringing cases. It is important that any limitation period strikes an appropriate balance between those who bring claims and those who are the recipient of or witnesses to claims. There is plainly an interest in bringing an end to cases.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, suggests that there is a degree of bias as a result of the amendments to the limitation periods provided for by the Bill. I hope that that is not the case, because it is clearly not desirable. The additional provisions that are written into limitation periods specifically for our Armed Forces are questionable. The existing limitation periods under the Limitation Act and Human Rights Act are perfectly adequate to deal with the considerations that are specifically averted to in the Bill.
For example, Section 33 of the Limitation Act, to which the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, referred, recites various matters that should be taken into consideration. He helpfully drew the House’s attention to them. The relevant subsection begins,
“the court shall have regard to all the circumstances of the case and in particular to—”
and then the various factors are listed. There is a slight difference between having regard to all the circumstances, which is a general discretion, and identifying particular factors. The Bill superimposes factors, as it says that the courts must have “particular regard”. There is a difference between “particular regard” and “regard in particular”. I do not think that that is merely a lawyer’s point because, as I said during the debate late on Tuesday, it is important that, although these factors may reasonably be taken into consideration, there should not be any form of trump.
My view is that these additional provisions do not provide a bias, but it is important to allay even the risk of them seeming to provide a bias. With respect, I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, about amending the Human Rights Act on discretion. In fact, in the London Borough of Hackney v Williams in 2017, the Supreme Court said that the court should not rewrite the statute. The words of the statute, in both the Human Rights Act and the Limitation Act, give the court a broad discretion. That will inevitably include these matters—the importance of securing a claim, from the claimant’s point of view, being one of them. All the others set out in both the Limitation Act and the additions provided by the Bill should also be taken into consideration. It is not a trump card, but I understand the noble Lord’s concerns.
My Lords, I enter this set of amendments as a lead signatory but as somewhat of an interloper, being the only speaker in this set of amendments and the subsequent two who is not a lawyer and does not have legal training. I will defer to my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford and his excellent opening remarks, but I want to add a couple of points and reasons why this set of amendments is so important.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, pointed out, this is a minor amendment—essentially, the four amendments are doing the same thing in the various parts of the United Kingdom—but I believe that it is a necessary amendment. That is precisely because Her Majesty’s Government have spent a lot of time telling us that this Bill is about the interests of service men and women and veterans, and yet, if one looks at the briefing, which I suspect other noble Lords have received, from the Royal British Legion, there is particular concern about Part 2 of the Bill. There is a whole set of representations that has been sent to me, and I assume to other noble Lords who are participating—for example, from the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, which is urging Peers to accept the amendments in my name and that of my noble friend to Clause 11 and Schedules 12 and 13.
Also, this is very much in line with the evidence received by an inquiry undertaken by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Rule of Law and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drones. I declare a prospective future interest in that my name has been put forward to become a vice-chair of the APPG on Drones. I took no part in the work that it has been doing, but it has produced an excellent briefing. It is important to reiterate from that evidence that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, pointed out, in Part 2 we are talking about claims brought against the MoD. This looks as if it is a protection for the MoD rather than supporting claimants. I believe very strongly that, if our concern is to support our Armed Forces and veterans, then we should be looking to protect them and not the MoD. That point was also made by Emma Norton, the director of the Centre for Military Justice, in her briefing:
“In terms of impact on soldiers which the MOD states it wants to minimise, it is worth remembering that all of these civil claims – whether brought by a civilian or a soldier - are brought against the MOD as defendant, not individual soldiers, though of course soldiers may have to give evidence.”
Our modest amendment is very much about securing the rights of claimants, and as the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, pointed out, there should be no cases where service men and women and veterans are being disadvantaged, and yet as the Royal British Legion pointed out, even in the Government’s own impact assessment of the Bill, a minimum of 19 injured and bereaved members of the Armed Forces communities would have had their claims blocked if the limit being proposed had been in place. And that is just for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Therefore I would like the Minister in his response to consider whether it would not be appropriate to balance the two subsections already proposed for “particular regard” for our amendment to be added as paragraph (c).
This has been a very significant debate, and one should not lose sight of the important changes that will take place in the ability of people to sue the MoD in respect of human rights claims, tort claims and contract claims arising out of overseas operations. The underlying problem, which the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, identified in his very clear and effective opening remarks, is that you do not want a situation where, when a court is considering whether to extend the limitation period beyond the primary limitation period, there is a bias in favour of the defendant, the Ministry of Defence.
What the noble Lord is saying, in effect, is that it should be approached in the way that these cases are approached in every other piece of civil litigation where there is an application to extend a period of limitation beyond the primary limitation period: the judge comes to a conclusion as to what he or she thinks—this is not quite the line in the statute—is just and equitable in all the circumstances. One of the really important things that one is looking at is the fact that the claimant will have a claim, and the claimant may be losing what would otherwise be a just claim because of the passage of time—and it may well be in particular that the passage of time beyond the primary limitation period could not properly be described as the fault of the claimant.
Over the years, the courts have become quite expert at exercising a discretion in relation to this, both under the Limitation Act 1980 and under the Human Rights Act 1998. My noble friend Lord Hendy, in his very helpful and compelling remarks about how the limitation period works, and the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, were basically in the same place. They were both saying that we should strike the balance in an even-handed way. I hope that it is not the case that there is going to be a bias in favour of the MoD, because, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, said, that is not desirable. My noble friend Lord Hendy said that there should not be bias. I completely agree with that. The purpose of this first group of amendments advanced by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, is to make sure that there is not such a bias. I agree with my noble friend Lord Hendy and the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, that it has to be clear that there is not going to be a bias.
I believe, therefore, that amendments to the Bill are required. Whether or not the proposals of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, are the best way to do it in group 1—there might be another way of doing it—the sentiment that underlies these amendments and the fact that they have been supported by both my noble friend Lord Hendy and the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, is significant. I very much hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart of Dirleton, will have listened and may perhaps reassure us that he will come back with some amendments to make sure that there is not that undesirable bias.
My Lords, I have listened with care to the remarks advanced by noble Lords in relation to this proposed amendment. At the outset, may I note and associate myself with remarks made by noble Lords as to the tenor of the speech introducing this part of the debate by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. This seems to me, drawing on my short experience in your Lordships’ House, to be of a kind with contributions which we hear from that source, from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, concerned as it was that the principles which underpin the legal systems in the jurisdictions of our United Kingdom should apply universally, irrespective of whether claimants are British subjects or not—underpinned also by that confidence in the ability of our courts and our system to do justice among all forms and manners of people.
In considering this amendment, I note that we have already discussed first of all the three factors that this Bill is introducing which the courts must consider and to which they must have particular regard when deciding whether to allow claims connected with overseas operations to proceed after the primary limitation periods have expired. I will not rehearse the arguments that I have already made as to why we are introducing these new factors, though I will necessarily, in answering your Lordships’ points, touch upon them.
However, the additional factor that these amendments propose to add is not, I submit, necessary. That is not because it is not right for the courts to consider the importance of proceedings in securing the rights of the claimant—of course it is—but because this is already something that the courts will take into account when they consider whether it is equitable in all the circumstances to allow a claim to proceed. The court would inevitably be assessing the right of the claimant in determining whether or not an extension to the time limit should be granted. The additional factor in terms of the amendment proposed does not enhance the policy aim of the Bill, which is to help provide service personnel with greater certainty. It would however, I submit, increase legal complexity in a way that is unnecessary.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas Gresford, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, in particular were concerned that the Bill as framed may risk presenting the appearance of bias in favour of the Ministry of Defence against an individual claimant. I suggest that it is better to look to the rationale behind the measures proposed in the Bill and the reflection that, unlike domestic litigation, litigation arising out of overseas operations should reflect these three factors which do bear on overseas operations in a manner in which they do not in a domestic context.
I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, for his rehearsal of the terms of the legislation in the Human Rights Act and the Limitation Act 1980 and for his account of the case arising out of the tragic circumstances of the matter in Iraq, in which he represented a complainant. But I also urge on your Lordships the views of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks. These provisions do not place a trump card in the hands of the Ministry of Defence; rather, in my respectful submission, they do what noble Lords speaking in favour of the amendment have accepted must be done—they strike a balance. I submit that they create a better balance by acknowledging the context of overseas operations, which otherwise do not appear in our legislation.
Because the amendment will risk introducing additional legal complexity and because the Bill as it stands seeks rather to redress the balance by acknowledging the circumstances of overseas operations, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for his response. This is one of those unusual situations where I can thank every single Lord, including him, who has spoken in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, in particular, gave very interesting support in spirit to what we seek to do. We just do not want these additional factors to be given statutory force. It undoubtedly gives the impression of bias to pay “particular regard” to matters in favour of only one party, the Ministry of Defence. I do not want to see those there, and if they are not there, there is no need for the amendment I am putting forward in an attempt to balance the biased effect of what is in the Bill.
It is extremely important that we should not pay “particular regard” to matters in the interests of one party. If we think about an application to extend the limitation period brought to the court, the claimant would be represented and would argue the reasons for delay. As I said on Tuesday, it is not a foregone conclusion that their argument will be accepted but, on the other hand, the Ministry would be entitled to put forward: “Well, it’s been such a long time, nobody can remember anything.” That might be right in a particular case, but it is not right as a matter of principle that should appear as a factor to which particular regard must be given in this statute. An important point of principle is involved in this and I shall certainly return to the issue on Report. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw.
Amendment 21 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 22. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in the debate.
22: Clause 11, page 7, line 30, leave out from “before” to end of line 34 and insert “the end of the period of 6 years beginning with the date of knowledge.”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is one of a series that change the relevant date from which the six-year longstop starts to run so as to account for legitimate and explicable delays commonly experienced by persons bringing claims under the HRA arising out of overseas operations.
[Inaudible]—that date will be either the date on which the act complained of took place or, alternatively, the date of knowledge of the cause of the action; for example, where a person is unaware of his right to sue or of the negligence which caused his injuries. Clause 11 introduces the concept of a cut-off date, whereby the judge loses any power to extend and the cause of action is extinguished for good.
This will be unique in the British system of justice, as we have discussed. A new category of claims arising out of overseas operations will be created. The rule set out in the Bill is that proceedings must be brought before the later of
“the end of a period of six years beginning on the date on which the act complained of took place”
“the end of the period of 12 months beginning with the date of knowledge”.
Whatever the cause of delay in starting proceedings may be, such as brain injury received by an injured serviceman, or the inherent problems that would face a victim living in some dusty village in Iraq or Afghanistan, about which I spoke at length on Tuesday and will not repeat, the rule is to apply not only in the courts of England and Wales, but in Scotland and in Northern Ireland.
Remember that the judge has power to strike out vexatious claims and that we are talking about claims against the Ministry of Defence, not the individual serviceman, who will never be called upon, whatever he has done, to pay the damages awarded. The worst that can happen to him is that, in the event of non-settlement of the case—I believe that over 90% of claims regarded as valid are settled—he might have to give evidence in the witness box and recall what he has done.
Amendment 24 refers to the definition of the date of knowledge. The Bill says that
“the ‘date of knowledge’ means the date on which the person bringing the proceedings first knew, or first ought to have known, both … of the act complained of, and … that it was an act of the Ministry of Defence or the Secretary of State for Defence”.
Our amendment adds further definitions of the date of knowledge—first, the date of
“the manifestation of the harm resulting from that act”,
and secondly, the knowledge that the claimant was eligible to bring a claim under the Human Rights Act in the courts of the United Kingdom.
Amendment 47 and the other amendments in this group are consequential or extend that principle to Scotland and Northern Ireland. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have little to add to the brief but very pertinent analysis in the most persuasive speech by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. I support Amendment 22 in particular as one of a series of amendments that change the relevant date from which the longstop starts to run to account for explicable delays commonly experienced by bringing claims under the HRA arising out of overseas operations.
I shall be brief. My experience of overseas operations in the Cold War was limited. As an infantry subaltern, my tour of duty in Germany was very brief, taking part in exercises over German planes and Gatow airport in Berlin and being in charge of the overnight train from Hanover to Berlin to emphasise our rights to go through the Russian zone to the British sector in Berlin.
Given my very limited experience, which I emphasise, I can quite see the circumstances for delay when advice and witness are not readily available. When active service is involved, in very different and hazardous conditions overseas, the timing of knowledge that is the basis of this amendment goes to the heart of the matter. The mover of Amendment 22, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, seeks to put into the Bill some statutory flexibility around the date of knowledge. There is nothing that I can usefully add, but I support with great pleasure this amendment, because knowledge is vital.
It is always a pleasure to follow my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon, who is ever youthful and eloquent, but of course it is the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, who is on a particular roll with these amendments, one that I do not want to impede for too long—save to say that Amendment 22 in particular reveals and reflects what a terrible disservice Part 2 does to veterans in the context of difficult and complex overseas operations. In particular, it highlights that it is not just the date of the harm that is an issue but the date of knowledge of causation, which can be so complex in the course of overseas operations. In the practical reality of a legal aid landscape, where most people including, tragically, veterans, have no ready access to advice and representation, it could be a very long time before a troubled veteran even knows that they had the right to bring a claim. That is a problem for everyone in a legal aid landscape that has been virtually decimated, but it is particularly shameful for any Government to be making it harder for their own veterans to claim redress against the MoD where appropriate and put an absolute bar up at six years.
The point about causation is so important; the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, describes it as
“the manifestation of the harm resulting from that act which is the subject of the claim”.
A veteran may well know that they are injured and know that they have, for example, experienced a number of different traumatic and potentially harming events in a complex situation of warfare, but causation can be a very difficult thing to discover. This will be even more problematic in the context of psychological harm and, possibly, other physical harms—to hearing, for example. It may be very difficult to learn, let alone to prove, that it was friendly fire and not enemy fire, or that it was negligence in provision of equipment that caused the harm.
The absolute six-year bar put up in relation to veterans against their former employer would be shocking enough in the context of factory workers domestically. Given the Minister’s remarks on the previous groups, that we should be particularly sensitive to the difference between what he described as domestic litigation and the special issues around overseas operations, it seems to me that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, has really hit the nail on the head in this group and some of those that follow.
My Lords, I have practically nothing to add to the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti. Their arguments are powerful and appear irresistible.
I just add one small point. I mentioned a case in which I was involved for the mother of a serviceman killed in a tank because of friendly fire. That case in fact took more than 12 years from his death until the payment of an award by way of settlement by the Ministry of Defence. There was no delay on any side; there was litigation in the meanwhile, and the test case went to the Supreme Court, and so on. But there were inordinate difficulties in pursuing that claim—in finding out what had happened, what the MoD record was on the fitting of identification kit, what the training programmes were and whether they were defective, obtaining expert evidence on these points, and so on—to know whether the case was meritorious, as it turned out to be.
These cases are not easy. As I say, the logic of the proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, is irresistible.
My Lords, once again, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hendy. In considering all these amendments, we should bear in mind that not all the claims that this legislation is concerned with—in fact, only a small proportion—are actually brought by veterans. The majority of the claims that have given rise to this litigation are brought by those who allege that they have been the victims of wrongs done to them by the military. One advantage of trying to put an end finally to litigation is that those members of the military who might be involved in this litigation, potentially as witnesses for the defendant or, indeed, for the claimant, can put an end to the matter in their minds. Nobody would be concealing anything deliberately but, once you have left theatre—overseas operations come to an end—it is a considerable burden to be troubled by some incident, about which there may be little corroboration or evidence, and to have to go to court, if necessary, to deal with allegations more than six years after the event.
These amendments are, of course, concerned with date of knowledge, and the legislation provides for an extension from the six-year long-stop period for date of knowledge. Incidentally, long-stop periods are not only in this Bill; they exist in other fields of law—for example, in the Latent Damage Act. As I said previously, and as the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, acknowledged, the date of knowledge is a difficult matter for courts, but they have shown themselves—helped by provisions in Sections 11 and 14 of the Limitation Act—able to find a proper response to difficulties that individuals may have in being aware that they have a cause of action.
The real issue is when the clock starts ticking. In the normal event, it starts ticking when the incident that gives rise to the claim occurs; in these cases, the possibility for litigation will end after six years, unless there is an extension of one year because of an extended date of knowledge. The provisions in the Limitation Act dealing with personal injury claims do not actually provide for a six-year period from the date of knowledge, as these amendments do; they provide at the maximum for three years. In other words, the clock starts ticking for three years after the incident occurs, in the normal case, and three years if there is a postponed date of knowledge. So this six-year extension is in fact wider than exists in conventional limitation periods for negligence cases. There is no equivalent of a date-of-knowledge provision in Human Rights Act cases; it is all dealt with under the provisions of Section 7 of the Human Rights Act.
One must be careful not to make too close a comparison between claims in negligence and claims under the Human Rights Act. As Lord Bingham said in a famous case, the Human Rights Act is not a tort statute. For the most part, these claims for personal injuries are much better brought in negligence. In fact, the claims under the Human Rights Act were usually advanced on the basis of an investigative duty that tends to be attached to these claims, which is one of the reasons why they were relied upon.
I respectfully suggest, although I understand what lies behind them, that these amendments go into territory that they should not go into and extend the period longer than it is desirable that anybody concerned in these types of cases should have to endure.
My Lords, in this suite of amendments we are focusing on a relatively narrow area. On this occasion, I should be slightly relived that the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, does not entirely agree with the movers of the amendment, because at least it gives me some additional points to respond to.
I take the point that there might be a shorter period within civil law and domestically, but there is a very clear difference between overseas operations and the civilians and military who might have to bring claims, and what might happen in a civilian context in the United Kingdom. As Emma Norton pointed out in her evidence to the All- Party Groups on Drones and on the Rule of Law, if something happened
“within the UK more than 6 years ago, courts would remain able to extend time limits”,
but if something happened overseas the courts would not have that right. As my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford pointed out, what is being proposed is unique in the British justice system—a new category of claims arising from overseas operations in respect of which the courts would have no right to give an extension.
It is clearly right that claims should be brought expeditiously and dealt with expeditiously, but sometimes it will not be possible for cases to be brought within the time limits the Government are suggesting. It is surely right to look for ways to ensure that claimants who may have not been in a position to bring a claim within a year of date of knowledge can bring the claim, and further discretion can be brought.
As with amendments in the previous and subsequent groups, if the Minister does not feel able to accept the language of our amendments, perhaps he might suggest how claimants who have cases arising from overseas operations will not be disadvantaged by Part 2 of the Bill.
I will first pick up on a point made by my noble friend Lord Hendy in the last group, which in fact relates to a group debated on Tuesday. It concerns the validity or otherwise of the point advanced by the Government: that they cannot make special exceptions for military personnel only suing the Ministry of Defence—in other words, treat them as if they are governed by the normal limitation periods—because there would be discriminatory concerns under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
As I indicated on Tuesday, I disagree with that proposition, as does my noble friend Lord Hendy. It is significant for this group of amendments because real concern is being expressed by practically all of your Lordships—I say practically because the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, is not—about members of the military not being able to bring claims in accordance with what I describe as the “normal law”. I do not ask the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart of Dirleton, to respond to the legal point now, but I ask him to write to us indicating the legal basis for the proposition that you cannot have a provision stating that military personnel suing the Ministry of Defence will be governed by the ordinary rules of limitation.
The amendments in this group do two important things. First, the current proposal in the Bill is that the limitation period on civil claims should be
“the later of … the end of the period of 6 years beginning with the date on which the act complained of took place”,
“the end of the period of 12 months beginning with the date of knowledge”.
The position is that the claimant who discovers that they have a claim only at the end of six years has only 12 months to make that claim. The first amendment in this group from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, says that it should not be 12 months from the date of knowledge, but six years. I am sympathetic to that idea and I would like to know why a period of 12 months was chosen in relation to service personnel. I would be interested to know why, having regard to the circumstances that arise on overseas operations, the Government thought it appropriate to have what might be seen as a very short period.
The second significant amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, would add certain additional elements to what is meant by the “date of knowledge”. At the moment, the Bill treats you as knowing if you knew of the act complained of and that it was an act of the Ministry of Defence. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, proposes amending Clause 11, so that you also have to know of the harm you suffered as a result of the act complained of. If, for example, the harm was mental illness, you might not know for some considerable time. In addition, the amendment says that you do not have to know only that it was an act of the Ministry of Defence, but that you might have a legal right to bring a claim too.
Taking the example given by my noble friend Lord Hendy, if you knew that your son was killed because of an act of the Ministry of Defence—friendly fire—but you did not know there was negligence and that you had a right to bring a claim, then knowing of the act complained of and that it was an act of the Ministry of Defence does not do you much good. These additional factors seem legitimate ones to take into account when considering what is meant by “date of knowledge”. These are important amendments and I am interested to hear the Minister’s answer.
These amendments relate to the date of knowledge provisions in Part 2 of the Bill. Before I address the substance of the amendments, I wish to issue a clarification regarding a statement I made in the previous sitting on Tuesday evening. I said that, while 94% of service personnel already bring their claims within the relevant time,
“it must be the case that many of the remaining 6% will come under the state of knowledge provisions”—[Official Report, 9/3/21; col. 1596.]
Your Lordships may recollect that that issue came up in the course of submissions by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup. In fact, we assessed that the 94% figure relates to claims brought by service personnel and veterans within six years of either the date of incident or the date of knowledge. We will endeavour to educate service personnel and veterans about these new provisions to ensure that more, if not all, claims are made within the new time limits in future.
I now move to the amendments in this group, which would increase the time period which runs from the date of knowledge for Human Rights Act claims from 12 months to six years. They would also change how limitation time periods are calculated by allowing claims to run only from the date of knowledge and not also from the date of the act or incident.
The date of knowledge provisions in Part 2 are an important aspect of the Bill. Because we are introducing hard time limits for certain claims, it is right that the longstop period can start from the date of knowledge. Of course, the Limitation Act 1980 already includes a date of knowledge provision which works, and we should not be amending that in this instance. However, the Human Rights Act does not have such a provision. We are therefore seeking to mitigate any unfairness that might arise from the imposition of a hard time limit by allowing claims to be brought late if the date of knowledge is later than the date of the incident.
The time period, which runs from the date of knowledge provision, is 12 months for Human Rights Act claims, because this mirrors the primary limitation period that already exists for Human Rights Act claims. We should consider why the primary limitation period for Human Rights Act claims is one year, as opposed to three years for personal injury claims, as we have heard already from the noble Lord, Lord Hendy. I believe that this is because it was considered, at the time, that 12 months was a sufficient period to bring a Human Rights Act claim. Your Lordships will recollect the submission of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, on what these claims, as opposed to claims in tort, tend to involve. We feel that in situations where the date of knowledge provision is engaged because knowledge is gained later than the date of the incident, 12 months provides enough time to bring such a claim. Claimants will still have at least six years from the date of the incident to bring a claim if they are able to persuade the court that it is fair and equitable in all the circumstances to extend the primary limitation period of 12 months.
While I accept all that the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, had to say about the potential difficulties of such claims, and while I acknowledge all the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, about the provenance of such claims and the fact that they might arise from people in the theatre of operations, nevertheless these are circumstances with which the courts are familiar. All noble Lords who have spoken, including the lawyers, have considered that limitation periods are necessary. They are accepted throughout the world in all legal systems, because finality in litigation is desirable. Those speaking in support of the Bill differ from those on this side only in saying where the line should be drawn.
These amendments also propose changing the date of knowledge definition. We consider that the definition in Clause 11 is comprehensive and fair both to claimants and to the Ministry of Defence. It does not replicate Section 14 of the Limitation Act 1980, because parts of the definition there do not make sense in the context of Human Rights Act claims. For example, in Human Rights Act claims, it is not necessary to show that a significant injury has been sustained as the result of an act or an omission alleged to constitute negligence. Similarly, these changes would add a new element to the date of knowledge definition—
“knowledge … of the manifestation of harm—"
that does not work in the context of Human Rights Act claims, where a victim simply needs to show a causal link between an unlawful act of a public authority and the resulting adverse outcome.
Lastly, these amendments would remove the date of incident or act as a reference point and rely only on the date of knowledge for calculating the limitation period. The date of knowledge would already be the relevant point in time for the limitation period to start from situations where knowledge arises after the date of the incident or act.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, acknowledged that these matters will arise in the special context of overseas operations, and I maintain what I said earlier about the difference between that and the domestic context, which is more familiar. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, referred to aspects of Tuesday’s debate on Amendment 29, as have others, and to the Government’s justifications for arguing against that. I gratefully accept the noble and learned Lord’s invitation to write to him on the legal basis upon which that argument was founded rather than taking up the time of the House with an amendment that we discussed on Tuesday.
For all the reasons I have advanced, I recommend that the amendment is withdrawn at this stage.
My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this interesting and important debate. I cannot help taking myself back to RAF Gatow, to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, referred, because I once stayed there on a rugby tour and subsequently played rugby for the combined clubs of Berlin. I need not go into the circumstances, but it was in the 1938 Olympic stadium. I thank him for reminding me of that.
Finality is an important principle, but it is not a principle that should work in the interests of only one party; I am yet to see it discussed or suggested, in relation to this Bill, that finality is for anyone other than the Ministry of Defence. Of course, references are made to the stress of giving evidence and so on, but I have already commented on that and will not repeat my comments. I do not think the principle of finality in favour of one party does anything more than increase the feeling of bias in favour of the Ministry of Defence which runs through this Bill, and that is what makes it so very objectionable. I heard the Minister refer to the fact the Human Rights Act is not affected but would not be involved in one of my amendments. These are not intended to be cumulative but to be considered separately; the date of knowledge can vary depending upon the circumstances of the case.
I simply adopt the words of the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, for whose speech I am grateful, when he said these amendments are “irresistible.” I agree, and I shall pursue them on Report. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 22 withdrawn.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 23. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
23: Clause 11, page 7, line 34, at end insert—
“(4A) The court may disapply the rule in subsection (1)(b) where it appears to the court that it would be equitable to do so having regard to the reasons for the delay, in particular whether the delay resulted from—(a) the nature of the injuries,(b) logistical difficulties in securing the services required to bring a claim, so long as the claimant was making all reasonable attempts to secure such services, or(c) any other reasons outside the control of the person bringing the claim.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment introduces a discretion for UK courts to allow a HRA claim arising out of overseas operations to proceed in prescribed circumstances so as to account for legitimate and explicable delays commonly experienced by persons bringing such claims.
My Lords, this group is concerned with the total cut-off of the right to bring proceedings, as contained in the Bill. As I have said, this is unique in the British justice system and limited to claims arising from overseas operations. You could call it the cliff edge, the blank wall, or hitting the buffers. We are dealing not with vexatious claims but all claims brought against the Ministry of Defence, whether by members of Her Majesty’s Forces, by victims whose claims arise by breaches of the Human Rights Act, such as torture, or by families whose claims arise because someone has been killed or injured. What is the policy behind this blank wall?
It is noticeable that this Bill does not cover Northern Ireland. I should be very interested and surprised if, when a Bill involving Northern Ireland appears, there was such a cut-off—such a blank wall—in relation to claims arising out of those deployments. I imagine that there might be considerable controversy. If it would not apply in Northern Ireland, why should a soldier suffering from long-term trauma as a result of service there be able to apply to extend the limitation period, in an appropriate case, but a soldier deployed to Iraq should not? What difference could be drawn between innocent victims of brutality in Northern Ireland or in Iraq? Their ethnicity? Is this not where Article 14 of the Human Rights Convention would bite?
I cannot believe that this is a policy to save the MoD money. What Liberal Democrat would ever make the bold statement of the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, that it is to save “a few bob”? What worries me is whether it is fuelled by a concern to prevent reputational damage. British forces have an admirable reputation worldwide for fairness and exemplary behaviour. Allegations of brutal conduct aired in the courts would not help, but it is essential to our reputation that, where there is wrongdoing, it is confronted and punished. There should be no suggestion that we sweep things under the carpet. I hope that that is not what lies behind this blank wall preventing claims after six years.
There is certainly a public interest in finality, but there is also a public interest in justice. These amendments are brought forward to get rid of the blank wall and to put claims from overseas operations on the same footing as all other claims brought before the British courts and tribunals. I ask again: what is the policy behind these unique, blank-wall provisions? I beg to move.
The noble Lord, Lord Hendy, has withdrawn from this debate, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti.
My Lords, once more I can only speak in complete support and admiration for the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and what he is trying to express in these amendments. The Minister pointed out that there is considerable consensus in this debate on the value of limitation periods and of finality. That is right, but he went on to say that the only difference between us is where the limitation lines should be drawn. That is, of course, not quite right. There is also an important difference of principle between us about whether there should be any residual discretion at all for the courts, in the interests of justice and to avoid terrible injustice, particularly in relation to these dangerous, complex, messy overseas operations.
Other noble and noble and learned Lords eloquently set out all the reasons why sometimes an absolute bar of six years, or even longer, would just not be enough. This is not necessarily because of the act itself, but because of causation, or because the condition means that someone has not been able to think about advice or damages, or, in the current landscape, they have not been able to get access to advice.
In the debate on the previous group, the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, I think, said that we should not worry too much because there must be finality, that we are really trying to bar these overseas victims and that a much smaller number of veterans would be barred. The first answer to the noble Lord is that there is no finality for someone suffering terrible and life-changing injuries or bereavement, who has had no access to justice because of what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, described as “a blank wall” or an absolute time bar. For someone suffering in that way, be they a victim of torture or a brave veteran put in harm’s way by the very Ministers and department that now bar their access to justice, there will be no finality, just a great deal of continued pain and suffering.
The second point that I make to the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, is from the perspective of Article 14 and of human decency. It is particularly pernicious for a Government to send veterans to war and then to bar them from compensation after a particular, absolute point with no judicial discretion. In the case of terrible abuses of power, it is also wrong to have an absolute bar with no discretion for victims of torture or other abuses that sometimes take place in periods of conflict. Absolute rules without discretion, especially when they are imposed by Governments to protect government departments, are particularly unjust. Let us not continue with the canard that this is just about protecting veterans from the anxieties of giving evidence. It is not just about that. This is barring, in absolute terms, claims against the MoD from people who will, inevitably, include some veterans or people such as my noble friend Lord Hendy’s client, the bereaved mother of a veteran.
My Lords, I make it clear that I do not take the view, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, seemed to suggest, that we should not worry too much about limitation periods because this would impact more on victims who were not in the military. That is not my view at all and I do not think that I expressed it. I do not believe that there should be any distinction between categories of claimants on what the limitation period should be.
The question is whether, as a matter of public policy, whoever is the claimant, there is a public interest in litigation coming to an end. That is what underlies all limitation periods in all sorts of circumstances. Six years, which at the moment is the longstop, has been taken as reasonable, having regard to all the difficulties that may exist in bringing claims. However, the particular challenges of overseas operations, for whoever the claimant is, are such that that is a fairly lengthy period.
I do not believe that many of the claims that have been brought would in any way fall foul of either the primary period in negligence of three years or even the one-year period under the Human Rights Act. Six years is quite a long period. In my experience of personal injury actions in other fields, it is very unusual for a court, in its discretion under Section 33, to disapply limitation for such a long period, except in very unusual circumstances. Those circumstances tend to be in cases that are, in any event, covered by date- of-knowledge provisions—for example, latent disease or something of that sort. I am absolutely not concerned to bias anyone, but simply ask whether there is a public interest in there being an end to litigation.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, raised a good question about Northern Ireland. As I understand it, there is likely to be a separate piece of legislation dealing with Northern Ireland in due course and I wait with interest to see what that is. My feeling about the provisions on limitation remains the same. I am not entirely sure that they are necessary, because the existing limitation periods are sufficiently sensitive to deal with some of the injustices that could arise from late claims. This is part of the agenda that the Government have to reassure veterans. The idea that it is entirely designed to protect the MoD is a somewhat cynical response. Reassurance for the veterans is a not unworthy aim but not, I entirely accept, if it runs the risk of causing injustice. For the moment, I am not convinced that it does.
My Lords, I am glad to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, does not want to bias anyone; I am sure that is absolutely right and we are all on the same page on that. However, he talked of a public interest in having a period of limitation. Clearly, there is a public interest here, but there is also a private, individual one. The amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford, try to get that balance right. The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, put the point very well by saying that we should not be talking about taking the role of the courts out of this entirely: there needs to be some discretion. Amendment 23 begins to rebalance this.
The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, is right that, clearly, there is a period in which people can bring cases but, if our previous set of amendments, which would extend the point from one to six years after the date of knowledge, were not accepted, we would need some mechanism that allowed a bit of discretion because, at the moment, there would be none for the courts. As such, Amendment 23 is desirable in its own right, but it is even more important if other amendments are not accepted, either now or when they are put forward by the Government, or when they are moved on Report.
Could the Minister give a further response on the date of knowledge? In opening his remarks on the previous set of amendments, clarifying a point he made on Tuesday, he said that the 94% of cases that were brought within—or what would be within—time were within six years not just of the incident but of the date of knowledge. If that is the case, does that not make it even more incumbent on the Government to look again at the date of knowledge as a relevant time point to have in the Bill—and not one but six years?
In effect, these amendments once again reintroduce the normal approach to limitation, which is that if you do not bring your claim within 12 months under the Human Rights Act or, if it is a personal injuries claim, within three years—based on tort or a breach of an implied contract—then the court can extend indefinitely, in effect, if it is just and equitable to do so. The courts have applied sensible approaches to those issues, and the longer you are away from the primary limitation period expiring, the better the reason you must have for extending the time.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, made a very powerful point, asking why there should be special rules for the Ministry of Defence in relation to overseas operations. The answer that the Ministry of Defence gives is that military personnel involved in overseas operations should know—indirectly, because they will not normally be sued personally—that no litigation will arise from their conduct after a specified period, which is six years or one year from the date of knowledge, whichever is later.
That approach does not seem to me or veterans’ organisations to be legitimate in relation to claims being brought by soldiers or veterans in respect of negligence or breaches of human rights by the Ministry of Defence. Military veterans or existing soldiers should be subject to the same rules in relation to limitation as apply in any other claims. There is no evidence that the reassurance that individual members of the military are looking for—in relation to ongoing litigation out of overseas operations—is coming from fear of claims being brought by veterans against the Ministry of Defence for personal injuries caused normally by negligence on its part.
As such, in so far as the new rule about limitation in respect of overseas operations applies to prevent claims being brought by veterans or existing soldiers, I am against it. The proposal made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, which, in effect, applies the normal rules, should be applied to veterans and existing soldiers who want to bring claims arising out of negligence or breaches of human rights in an overseas operation, just as much as if they bring a claim with the normal rules applying if the injury had occurred to them in the UK. The soldier injured by the provision of a negligent piece of equipment—body armour or a vehicle—can bring a claim with the normal rules applying if it happened on Salisbury Plain, but he or she cannot if the same act of negligence had occurred in an overseas operation. That is profoundly wrong.
My Lords, the limitation longstops provide service personnel with a greater level of certainty that they will not be called on to give evidence in court many years after an event. The uncertainty that the Bill proposes to address can have a significant effect on service personnel and veterans. It prevents them from drawing a line under certain traumatic experiences, always knowing that there is a possibility that the events of the past may be dug up again. This is why it is important to have finality and why the limitation longstops need to have a clear end.
In moving the amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, asks for the policy that underlies this measure; that is the policy. For the reasons that I have discussed, it is important that limitation longstops have a clear end, one that cannot be overcome. Were it to be overcome by the existence of some residual discretion, such as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, would seek to have imposed, that would negate the benefits to service personnel of greater certainty that they will not be called on to give evidence many years after the event. Let us remember that, in claims such as can be anticipated, it will most likely not be Ministers standing in the witness box and accounting for decisions taken; it is likely to be the very comrades of service personnel themselves.
Six years provides enough time to bring a claim: to echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, it is a fairly lengthy period. The vast majority of service personnel and veterans already bring relevant claims within six years of the date either of the incident or of knowledge. As I say, giving discretion to the courts to allow claims after the expiry of the longstops will negate the benefits, and we want to provide service personnel and veterans with those benefits which flow from greater certainty.
The noble Lords, Lord Thomas of Gresford and Lord Faulks, adverted to a contrast with the situation that may arise in relation to Northern Ireland. That is indeed a special context, and, echoing the words of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, this is a matter to be dealt with in separate legislation.
The longstops apply to all Human Rights Act and death and personal injury claims connected with overseas operations. We believe that six years is a sufficient period to commence proceedings, regardless of who is bringing the claim. Where claims cannot be brought within the relevant timeframe because the claimant was not aware that their injuries were caused by the actions of UK Armed Forces, the date-of-knowledge provisions help to mitigate any unfairness that might otherwise be caused.
Rather than extending the discretion of the courts indefinitely, I submit that we must accept that it is reasonable to have a line drawn after a particular period of time. This principle of finality was accepted in Stubbings v United Kingdom from 1996, a judgment that has been confirmed repeatedly. Here, the European Court of Human Rights upheld an absolute six-year limitation period. The court noted the need in civil litigation for limitation periods because they ensure legal certainty and finality, avoid stale claims, and prevent injustice where adjudicating on events in the distant past involves unreliable and incomplete evidence because of the passage of time—the very considerations which inform the Bill before this House.
We also need to provide the right level of training and communication to our Armed Forces to ensure that our service personnel are aware of their rights and can bring claims, if necessary, in a timely fashion. With the right level of communication, we would hope to see that those claims from service personnel which historically have been brought more than six years after the event would be brought earlier should they arise in future.
We must remember that all claimants already need to convince the court to extend the primary limitation period of three years or one year, and that these arguments are not certain to succeed. The later the claims are brought, the more difficult they are to prove, as well as to defend. It is therefore in the interests of all claimants to bring their claims as soon as possible. In situations where claimants are unaware of who was responsible for their injury, or where an illness is diagnosed many years after an incident or operational tour to which it is attributable, the date of knowledge provision will help to mitigate the impacts of the longstops.
However, I submit that we must move towards providing that greater certainty which will reassure service personnel and veterans. Therefore, while I acknowledge the words of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, that these matters will be returned to, I recommend that these amendments are not pressed.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for his definition of the policy behind these provisions in the Bill. He said that we have a blank wall in the Bill because of concern for witnesses. Let us just pause for a moment and think about that. The prime witness is the person who perpetrated the act that is the cause of the claim. I refer to the reversal of the victim and perpetrator situation that I mentioned earlier this afternoon. The perpetrator must be protected from having to relive the violence that he inflicted on the claimant. What about witnesses—his “comrades”, the noble and learned Lord described them as? I am in a rugby mood at the moment, and I cannot help thinking of the out of order principle on the rugby field. A degree of violence is accepted, but when you see a member of the team stamping on the face of a person in the opposition, yards away from the ball, the out of order principle comes into effect. So the policy behind these provisions is so that the comrade, who may very well think that it was all out of order—that is why he is giving evidence—must be protected in case he suffers stress. It is a topsy-turvy world, it is not? Surely it is the victim’s interest that is the most important thing.
I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, for his contribution. He is a former Minister of State in the Ministry of Justice and he said, in terms, “I don’t really see the purpose of these provisions”. I agree with him. All the provisions relating to limitation are unnecessary, and the Limitation Act, with all those particular matters to which the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, referred in reminding us of its contents, is quite sufficient to deal with all the problems. What is not acceptable is the blank wall which prevents, in this single category, the continuation of proceedings if the six-year limitation period is attained. As the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, said, war is dangerous, complex and messy, as are the situations around it. What we should not have, in particular where it is complex and messy, are barriers to justice, and that is what these provisions do. Why? To prevent people going into the witness box. The whole concept of justice is turned topsy-turvy.
I hope I will return to this, with the support of other noble Lords—I welcome that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, in particular—on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment for the moment.
Amendment 23 withdrawn.
Amendments 24 and 25 not moved.
Clause 11 agreed.
Clause 12: Duty to consider derogation from Convention
26: Clause 12, page 8, line 20, at end insert—
“(1A) No order may be made by the Secretary of State under section 14 following consideration under this section unless a draft of the order has been laid before, and approved by, each House of Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would require significant derogations regarding overseas operations proposed by the Government from the European Convention on Human Rights to be approved by Parliament before being made.
My Lords, this introduces a new topic, namely the purpose of Clause 12. Its effect is to impose, in relation to
“any overseas operations that the Secretary of State considers are or would be significant”,
“the Secretary of State must keep under consideration whether it would be appropriate for the United Kingdom to make a derogation under Article 15(1)”
of the European Convention on Human Rights. Why has that been introduced? Is it worthwhile? As noble Lords will know, when states sign up to the human rights convention they agree not to violate or take any steps in breach of it. States are entitled to derogate from the human rights convention:
“In time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation”.
That is Article 15.1. No state has derogated from the convention due to war with another state. Most derogations have been in response to internal conflicts and terrorism. In these cases, states relying on the power to derogate have tended to rely on a
“public emergency threatening the life of the nation”.
The courts will give states a wide margin of appreciation when it comes to deciding whether there is a public emergency. The UK derogated from the human rights convention in 1970 following terrorist attacks relating to Northern Ireland, and in 2001 after 9/11.
As noble Lords will know, there are very considerable limits on derogating measures. First, states can take measures derogating from the human rights convention only
“to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation”.
That is in the article itself. Secondly, states can never derogate from non-derogable rights; that is in Article 15.2. That means they can never derogate from Article 2 or Article 3, from the articles that prohibit slavery, or from the right not to be convicted of a criminal offence for acts which were not criminalised at the time, and nor can they subject people to greater penalties for a criminal act than existed at the time the offence was committed. What is more, derogations must be consistent with the state’s other obligations under international law. In the context of overseas operations, that means that we in the United Kingdom could never derogate from international humanitarian law.
To some people, new Section 14A might seem a recipe for the state to get away, in relation to overseas operations, from human rights obligations that have been unpopular in some quarters—absolutely not. In effect, all that the right to derogate does is to allow the state—in certain, very unusual circumstances—in practice to detain people without what would otherwise be regarded as a due process, because of the public emergency. Although there are other rights that could be derogated from, in practice that is the only one that would ever genuinely be in consideration in relation to the sort of situation we are dealing with in this Bill.
My concern is that Clause 12, which would add Section 14A to the Human Rights Act, is a totally phoney piece of human rights bashing by the Government, put in only to try to say that we are really “taking on the Human Rights Act” in relation to overseas operations. The only effect of this clause is that consideration would have to be given to the question of whether there should be detentions without trial. I cannot imagine circumstances in which a Government, if that was a possibility, would not consider it without the need for this clause.
I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me that this is not a completely phoney and empty provision made for bad reasons. On any basis, if a derogation is considered and given effect to because of this clause, an explanation should be given immediately to Parliament, and it should be given effect to only with the approval of Parliament. That is why I put my name to the first of the amendments in this group. I beg to move.
My Lords, the then Human Rights Bill came to Parliament without a Green Paper or a White Paper or any consultation paper preceding it. It did so shortly after the Labour Government came to power in 1997. Although there were no detailed debates in Parliament about the extraterritorial reach of the then Human Rights Bill, a number of concerns were expressed at the time about whether the convention —the ECHR—was really appropriate in the case of armed conflict abroad. There were those who took the view that there should be an express carveout in those circumstances, but that is not what happened. There was, however, a power in the HRA 1998—as it became—which permitted the Government to derogate from the European convention. It is important to note that the power was not used in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The inclusion in this Bill of an obligation to consider derogation might be regarded as rather unnecessary, since the power exists anyway. I suppose it might be considered to be part of the reassurance agenda vis-à-vis our Armed Forces. In any event, I respectfully ask the Minister about the Government’s interpretation of Article 15. I find it hard to disagree with much of what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said about the right to derogate, and I ask her to clarify for the Committee the relevance of this obligation vis-à-vis overseas operations. My Amendment 27, which is supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, is an attempt to grasp a nettle. He would have liked to address the Committee but unfortunately is unable to do so.
I think it will be broadly accepted that vexatious claims and repeated investigations arising out of overseas operations, principally in Iraq and Afghanistan, lie behind this legislation. There is an old saying that generals always fight the last war. There is a similar risk with legislation, and I acknowledge that lessons will have been learned and that there should in the future be an improvement in investigations, as compared with those that went so badly wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the ability to bring claims under the Human Rights Act, including the so-called investigative duty, principally under Article 2, was undoubtedly a significant factor in the vexatious claims brought against the military. In turn, they often led to investigations leading to potential—if not very often actual—prosecution. I think it would be broadly accepted that the investigations and their failure contributed significantly to the proliferation of often vexatious claims, with all the human damage of ruined reputations and lives that followed, accompanied sometimes by prolonged and expensive litigation.
For some time, the think tank, Policy Exchange, has called into question the wisdom of claimants being allowed to rely on the Human Rights Act in relation to overseas operations. Noble Lords may be familiar with the publications The Fog of Law and Clearing the Fog of Law—among others—which discuss the way in which the law has often fallen short in protecting our military from vexatious claims.
It may also be worth reminding noble Lords of what the Explanatory Notes to the Bill say:
“This Bill seeks to address issues that have partly arisen from the expansion of the European Convention on Human Rights … to cover overseas … operations where the UK had assumed that international humanitarian law had primacy.”
That was certainly an assumption which existed until the case of Al-Skeini. Jack Straw told the House of Commons Defence Select Committee in 2013 that
“to the very best of my recollection it was never anticipated that the Human Rights Act would operate in such a way as directly to affect the activities of UK forces … abroad”
and that, if so,
“there would have been a very high level of opposition to its passage, on both sides, and in both Houses”.
The case of Al-Skeini concerned the issue of whether the Human Rights Act had extraterritorial application. Lord Bingham—probably the outstanding judge of my and perhaps other generations—came to a clear view on the matter. He was not, incidentally, a judge with anything other than considerable enthusiasm for the protection of human rights in law. But his careful analysis was based on statutory construction and was a clear reflection of precedent. He set out in his judgment the relevant principles, and concluded as follows:
“I would accordingly hold that the HRA has no extra-territorial application. A claim under the Act will not lie against the Secretary of State based on acts or omissions of British forces outside the United Kingdom. This does not mean that members of the British armed forces serving abroad are free to murder, rape and pillage with impunity. They are triable and punishable for any crimes they commit under the three service discipline Acts already mentioned, no matter where the crime is committed or who the victim may be. They are triable for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes under the International Criminal Court Act 2001. The UK itself is bound, in a situation such as prevailed in Iraq, to comply with The Hague Convention of 1907 and the Regulations made under it. The Convention provides (in article 3) that a belligerent state is responsible for all acts committed by members of its armed forces, being obliged to pay compensation if it violates the provisions of the Regulations and if the case demands it. By article 1 of the Geneva IV Convention the UK is bound to ensure respect for that convention in all circumstances and … to prohibit (among other things) murder and cruel treatment of persons taking no active part in hostilities. Additional obligations are placed on contracting states by protocol 1 to Geneva IV. An action in tort may, on appropriate facts, be brought in this country against the Secretary of State: see Bici v Ministry of Defence … What cannot, it would seem, be obtained by persons such as the present claimants is the remedy they primarily seek: a full, open, independent enquiry into the facts giving rise to their complaints, such as articles 2 and 3 of the Convention have been held by the Strasbourg court to require. But there are real practical difficulties in mounting such an enquiry.”
I hope noble Lords will forgive me for quoting Lord Bingham’s speech at some length, but it is most important for me to emphasise that my amendment in no way means that war is, or should be, a law-free zone. As Lord Bingham set out, there is a vast number of different restraints on unlawful activity, including, of course, claims in negligence.
The Secretary of State, in his submissions before the House of Lords in al-Skeini, had argued that the HRA had no application to public authorities outside the borders of the UK. That, presumably, was the view of the then Labour Government. To the surprise of many, the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in al-Skeini was at variance with the views of Lord Bingham.
Thereafter, the Government were, in their view, constrained to set up an inquiry, with all the consequences that ensued. The final sentence of Lord Bingham’s speech about the practical difficulties in mounting such an inquiry was indeed prescient. It was this inquiry which generated much of the mischief that lies behind this legislation. There is no right, for example, to an inquiry attendant upon the right to sue for negligence, although such a cause of action will continue to exist, whatever view your Lordships take of this amendment.
Enthusiasm for the al-Skeini decision is not universal among the judiciary here. Mr Justice Leggatt, as he then was—he is now Lord Leggatt in the Supreme Court—said in 2014, in the Serdar Mohammed case, with masterly judicial understatement, that it was
“not obvious why Afghan citizens should be able to assert European Convention rights on Afghan territory.”
But he felt bound by al-Skeini.
I have mentioned the government submission in the al-Skeini case. I respectfully ask the Minister whether that is still the Government’s view. I acknowledge that Sir Peter Gross and his committee have been asked to consider, among other issues, whether or not claims should be brought based on the Human Rights Act in respect of overseas operations. The Minister may in response to this amendment say simply that the Government are awaiting Sir Peter’s report. But surely the Government must have at least a preliminary view. What if Sir Peter were to recommend no change, or were he to suggest that it was essentially a matter for the Government, and then for Parliament, whether there should be the appropriate amendment in the Human Rights Act to clarify the position? What then?
Another response that I anticipate may come from the Minister is that whatever the Government may think about the matter, we have our international obligations as a result of being a party to the convention, and we do not want to be in breach of those obligations or to encourage people to have to go direct to Strasbourg rather than seek remedies in our courts.
May I anticipate that argument? The first point is that there is always the possibility that Strasbourg will change its mind on this particular point, as it has done before in the light of a better understanding of the effect of one of its rulings, or because further evidence has come before it in one form or another. Take, for example, the reversal of the well-known decision in Osman v UK by the European Court of Human Rights in Z v UK. Al-Skeini itself marked something of a departure from the decision in Bankovic v Belgium. It must also be emphasised that Strasbourg does not have a system of binding precedent in the way that our courts have, so it is perfectly free to take a different view.
Finally, I mention the fact that, although our courts initially took to the Strasbourg jurisprudence with, some would say, unnecessary enthusiasm, we have now reached the position where our courts are prepared to depart, if appropriate, from a decision by the Strasbourg court. So it is perfectly open, I suggest, to the Government to accept this amendment.
We joined the European Convention in 1953, and for 40 years, before the Human Rights Act, there were rights under the convention which could be sought by individuals in Strasbourg. We were not in breach of our treaty obligations for 40 years by failing to provide for a domestic remedy. What the Human Rights Act did was, in that memorable phrase “to bring rights home”. It was not—and this is made clear in the al- Skeini Lord Bingham judgment—an obligation on the part of the Government to incorporate the convention. Rather, the Government chose to do so, and Parliament, with a massive majority, endorsed that decision.
Now, in the light of the woeful history of vexatious litigation, it is, I respectfully submit, entirely appropriate for the Government, and for Parliament, to think again. The passage of this Bill is plainly the right time and provides a suitable opportunity to do so. I ask the Minister to seriously consider and accept this amendment.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Faulks. Before I say a word or two in the light of what he just said, I should explain that I put my name to Amendment 26 and support what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, said about it, but I also have my name to the Motion to oppose Clause 12—in other words, to propose that it should not stand part of the Bill.
I add just a word to what the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, said about the al-Skeini decision. As he will appreciate, if the decision of the Appellate Committee over which Lord Bingham presided had remained without further recourse to Strasbourg, we would not be discussing Clause 12 at all. I did not sit on al-Skeini, but I sat on a later case called Smith, which I know the noble Lord is aware of, where we had to consider a decision by the Strasbourg court in effect to reverse Lord Bingham’s decision. Indeed, the noble Lord referred to it. It was a very difficult decision for us because we had to analyse exactly what the Strasbourg court was talking about. One thing that emerged from our study of that decision was that it did not really believe that the whole of the convention rights could apply in a situation such as arose in Iraq. There were rights there that simply have no point whatever. It talked about it being a slightly tailored approach to the convention for the particular situation in which our Armed Forces were placed.
We considered the matter very carefully, and one of the features of Smith is that, although we were divided on the issue as to the application of the Human Rights Act invoked by relatives of deceased servicemen, we were unanimous in the view that we could not escape the decision of the Strasbourg court. The current state of play, which the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, very rightly calls in question, is that, for the moment, there is a decision by the Supreme Court that we must follow the al-Skeini decision in Strasbourg and the Human Rights Act—the convention rights, in effect—so far as relevant, applies in the case of operations offshore.
I cannot escape from the fact that in the other part of the Smith decision, we, by a majority, declined to strike out the claims of the servicemen, one of which was referred to earlier this afternoon by the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, and, eventually, those claims were settled. Had we struck them out, we probably would not be as troubled by Clause 12 as we are now, but Clause 12 is there, so we must address it.
That brings me to my real point. I find it hard to know what to make of Clause 12. At first sight it is simply unnecessary. As has been mentioned, the power to derogate from our obligations under the European convention by means of a derogation order under Section 14(1) and (6) of the Human Rights Act 1998 already exists. It has been exercised from time to time, notably in 2001, by an order which would have allowed the indefinite detention of non-national suspected terrorists who could not be deported.
I use the words “would have allowed” because that order was set aside on an appeal to this House. That was because it unjustifiably discriminated against non-nationals on nationality grounds in comparison with UK nationals who were suspected of terrorism. We did not think it right in any way to interfere with the Secretary of State’s decision that the overall test of a state of an emergency affecting the life of the nation was set aside, but we did think that it was a disproportionate exercise of the power.
I mention that case because it serves as a warning that derogation orders are open to judicial review, so the power is not something to be exercised lightly. But that is not the real point that I wish to concentrate on today, because I question the need for this clause. Where there is a power, as there is here, there is already a duty to consider whether, should circumstances require, it should be exercised. So why should the clause refer to that duty? It adds nothing to the existing law—so why is it there?
The Explanatory Notes shed little light on this mystery. They do make the point that there is a threshold that must be crossed if the order is to meet the criteria in Article 15 of the convention. Clause 12 says that this is where the operations “are or would be significant”. Article 15, on the other hand, says—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, has reminded us—that derogation may be resorted to only:
“In time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation”.
I found it rather hard to see how conducting operations overseas in themselves, if that is what we would be doing, could satisfy that test, even if they were or would be significant. The fact that the clause shrinks from using the words of Article 15 makes one wonder whether the meaning and effect of Article 15 has been properly analysed. There was no such problem in the case of the 2001 order. The suspected terrorists presented a very real risk to the safety of the public, and thus to the life of the nation, if they were not capable of being detained. For the moment it is enough to say that I wonder whether this clause is really facing up to what would be needed to justify derogation in this kind of case where we are operating overseas.
There is no sign either in the wording of the clause or in the Explanatory Notes that the Government have appreciated the other limitations in Article 15, to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, referred. That provision states that no derogation from Article 2, the right to life, can be made except in respect of deaths resulting from lawful acts of war, or from Article 3, the prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, or from Article 4.1, the prohibition of slavery, or from Article 7, no punishment without law.
There remains Article 5, the right to liberty and security—the only reasonable situation in which the power referred to in the clause could be exercised. That is what the 2001 case was about. Is this the purpose of the clause? Is it there so that our Armed Forces can lock up any people whom they happen to detain during their operations without trial indefinitely? If so, why does it not come out into the open and confine its scope to that article, which is really all that can be achieved?
As for vexatious claims, I suspect that almost all of them were directed to the ground covered by Article 3, the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment—and, of course, that is something from which no derogation is permitted.
I therefore ask the question: is Article 5, the right to liberty, what this clause is all about? Or is there some other purpose? Is it there simply to send a message? If so, to whom, and why, and what is the message? These are vital questions and, unless the Minister can give clear and convincing answers to them, I suggest that the clause should be removed from the Bill.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to listen to the analysis of the noble and learned Lord who has just spoken. I am very impressed by his view, and I agree with him. I have written extensively and admiringly about the first Earl of Minto—a significant but forgotten governor-general of India in Napoleonic times. He oversaw overseas operations in 1811, he drove the French out of the Indian Ocean at Martinique and Reunion and captured Java from the Dutch at the Battle of Cornelis. He could boast to Spencer Perceval, the Prime Minister, that the French and their allies had been banished all the way from the Cape of Good Hope eastwards to Cape Horn. He abolished slavery wherever he found it, and cast instruments of torture into the sea.
The radical MP and pamphleteer William Cobbett was not enthusiastic. Writing from prison, where he spent more time than he did in the House of Commons, he warned that the conquest of Java was of no value. It was a country of the same extent as Britain but with 30 million people—nearly twice the population of this country at the time. He said that it placed upon the British
“the trouble of governing, especially in those two important particulars, the administration of justice and the collection and disposal of the revenues; that is to say, the absolute power over men’s lives and purses.”
So it was in Basra and in Helmand Province. It was precisely those considerations—power over men’s lives—that caused the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights unanimously to conclude that one of the exceptional circumstances in which the European Convention on Human Rights would apply extraterritorially was when a state bound by the ECHR exercised public powers on the territory of another state. In Iraq the UK had assumed the powers normally to be exercised by a sovereign Government—in particular, responsibility for the maintenance of security in south-east Iraq.
In a later case, in 2011, the European Court of Human Rights held that the UK’s power to detain prisoners in Iraq gave jurisdiction to a finding that the UK had violated Article 5 of the ECHR, the right to liberty and security. In July 2013 the Supreme Court here upheld a claim on behalf of British service personnel who were killed as a result of friendly fire—the case to which the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, referred. The claim was founded on both a violation of human rights and civil liability for negligence in the provision of training and equipment.
The Supreme Court held that a soldier had the protection of Article 2 of the ECHR, the right to life. The Equality and Human Rights Commission commented that the ruling of the Supreme Court had provided
“a reasonable balance between the operational needs of our armed forces and the rights of those serving in our armed forces to be protected in the same way as we expect them to protect the rights of civilians abroad”.
This upset Conservative elements in the coalition Government, but they could do nothing with their Liberal Democrat colleagues at their side. However, in March 2016, when the Liberal Democrats had gone, the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, then Minister of State for Justice, said that the Defence and Justice Secretaries were preparing a legislative package to “redress the balance”.
Indeed, in the 2016 Conservative Party general election campaign, a strident call was put out to scrap the Human Rights Act. That had been watered down by the 2019 election manifesto into a call for a committee —chaired, I thought, by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, but perhaps there is another chairman now. We await the committee’s deliberations breathlessly.
I was, therefore, rather surprised to observe the cautious nature of Clause 12. It imposes statutory duties on the Secretary of State to “consider” whether to derogate under Article 15. One would expect him to consider that when deploying forces in overseas operations. The problem is that Article 15 gives power to derogate only
“in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation.”
The power to derogate may be exercised only where strictly required by the exigencies of the situation. As noble Lords have said, it is not possible to derogate from Article 2—the right to life,
“except in respect of deaths resulting from lawful acts of war.”
It is also not possible to derogate from Article 3, on the prohibition of torture; Article 4, on the prohibition of servitude or forced labour; or Article 7, on no punishment without law. I realise that I am repeating what has already been said.
The UK gave notice of derogation in relation to the situation in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, so that it could take powers of arrest, detention and internment without trial. In 2001, following 9/11, we issued a notice of derogation concerning the power to detain foreign nationals without trial. France similarly exercised the power to derogate following the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015. Other countries, such as Ukraine, have also done so when the life of the nation was threatened.
On investigating Clause 12 of the Bill, however, one sees that the circumstances in which the Secretary of State must consider derogation are not at all those as set out in Article 15. The clause provides for a scenario for operations
“outside the British Islands in the course of which members of those forces may come under attack or face the threat of attack or violent resistance”.
Of course, those circumstances do not, of themselves, give rise to a power to derogate. Can the Minister please explain why the preconditions in Article 15(1) do not appear in the Bill as the trigger for the Minister’s consideration of whether to derogate?
One academic lawyer described the cry in the 2016 Conservative manifesto to scrap the Human Rights Act as clickbait. That is all this clause amounts to. If your Lordships require confirmation, they have only to turn to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier. For them, the trumpet sounds with an uncertain note in the Bill as promoted. In their amendment we see the red meat. “Do not bother about derogating from the ECHR, just say ‘No claim can be brought under the Human Rights Act, derogation or no derogation’—that’s it.” I can only assume that the clarion call of Mrs May to scrap the Human Rights Act is about to emerge from the independent commission, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks.
If the two leading lawyers on the Conservative Benches think this is a useless provision, perhaps they will join the rest of us in throwing it out.
My Lords, once more I have the daunting privilege of following the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. I will avoid repetition and begin by dealing briefly with the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks.
First, I will deal with my own moral position in relation to human rights in overseas operations. I am quite clear that, in a wartime situation, in the heat of conflict, there will and must be a very tailored and limited application of rights and freedoms as we normally understand them domestically, in peacetime. However, the Bill covers all overseas operations, such as peacekeeping, covert operations and the policing and rule of law-establishing operations of an occupying force.
Many times, in recent years, people have come to these Houses of Parliament and urged interventions overseas on the grounds of human rights. They have wept hot tears over various human rights abuses perpetrated by dictators elsewhere and suggested that we had a responsibility to intervene. In moral terms, this amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and—rather surprisingly to my mind—from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, would mean that, even where our forces were involved in peacekeeping or policing operations or in detaining prisoners, there would be no application of the Human Rights Act. We are not talking about bullets flying in a battlefield; we are talking about rule of law operations—whether covert or overt—in which the Human Rights Act would not apply.
They are also suggesting that there should be no Human Rights Act claims by our own military personnel overseas. No doubt, the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, might say that they still have claims of negligence—up to the absolute six-year bar. There have been many times during the years when the ECHR—first without and then with the benefit of the Human Rights Act—has enabled serving personnel and veterans to improve their lot and obtain fair and dignified treatment by their employers. It is not always the case that people are seeking damages. Quite often, they are seeking a vindication of their rights and a finding that they have been subjected to degrading treatment, whether in a barracks or elsewhere. There have been cases of women in the military who have been raped, but those crimes have not been adequately processed. There have been questions about the fairness of courts martial and so on.
It seems equally wrong that, just because these personnel are overseas, the Human Rights Act should have no reach. It is the closest we have to a modern Bill of Rights. Any amendment of it should be approached with considerable care. I am slightly concerned that there are so few speakers on this group. So that is my moral position on whether the Human Rights Act should or should not apply in relation to overseas operations.
There is a practical point for those who disagree with me, such as the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and perhaps even the Minister. It is about the relationship between our domestic courts and the Strasbourg court as a result of our Human Rights Act. The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, foreshadowed this when he said, “Oh people will say that if the Human Rights Act has no reach on overseas operations, people will just trot off to Strasbourg—but, of course, Strasbourg can change its mind.” He is quite right. Strasbourg has changed its mind—more than once—in relation to the activities of the UK state but, more often than not, it has done so because of the expert and grounded interventions of our domestic courts and our greater expertise and knowledge of our own systems and processes.
Were the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, to pass, no claims would be possible domestically under the Human Rights Act in relation to overseas operations. It would mean that our judges—all the way up to the Supreme Court—would not be able to comment on any human rights claims in relation to overseas operations, whether brought by British personnel and veterans or by those who might claim to be their victims. That would mean that both the veterans and the other alleged victims of the UK state would go straight to the Strasbourg court, which takes the view that the ECHR has some reach in relation to overseas operations, and those cases would be considered without the benefit, the wisdom and the interventions of our judges. The dialogue model, which was set up under the Human Rights Act so that our courts are to take account of the jurisprudence of the Strasbourg court—only take account of it; they are not bound by it—would be broken, so that the Strasbourg court would no longer have the benefit in ECHR or HRA cases of the wisdom and experience of our highest courts.
That would be a practical, logical and tactical error that would only set up a collision course between the UK courts, potentially the UK Government and the Strasbourg court. If that is a collision that the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and others are seeking, perhaps they should just be as honest as some Conservatives—not all, by a long chalk—have been in recent years with their desire not only to scrap our Human Rights Act but to leave the Council of Europe altogether. That, to me, is a terrifying prospect, but that is the collision course that is being set up by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and others. Perhaps they should just say so, but it is a mistake in my view.
Turning to the main event, so to speak, which is the Clause 12 duty to consider derogation from the convention through a new Section 14A of the Human Rights Act, my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, have described the question marks over this clause very well. Is it necessary? Is it wise? What is it trying to achieve? Is it, as my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer put it so pithily, just phony human-rights bashing for political purposes, because this Bill is so much about signal sending? That is one possibility, which was less flamboyantly, perhaps, but none the less considered in Part 5 by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope.
As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, indicated, given that this Bill in general works so hard to suggest in various places what considerations and tests should be applied by courts, prosecutors and other decision-makers, it must be worthy of note that the new Section 14A of the Human Rights Act proposed by Clause 12 does not replicate the test for derogation under Article 15. Why is that the case? Why does it appear to create this duty to constantly consider derogating but not set out the strict tests that derogation requires? It must be that the derogation would be strictly necessary in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation, which, of course, is going to be far from the case in many covert or overt operations in the modern world—some short, some longer, some peacekeeping. Why has the Article 15 test not been replicated? Is it again, as happened with other legislation, such as the Internal Market Bill, an attempt to create tension, a collision course or a divergence between domestic law and international law duties? That would be very worrying indeed.
Is there a third possibility, that by creating a new legal duty on the Secretary of State to consider derogation, the Government are inviting litigation on the part of those who want the Secretary of State to derogate in a situation where the Secretary of State has chosen not to do so, not least on the basis of advice that a derogation would not be justified? It would be a bitter pill indeed if this legislation actually invited vexatious litigation from anti-human rights groups, when so much of the Bill is supposedly about limiting vexatious claims.
I am very concerned about the signals in respect of human rights that are being sent by Clause 12. I am hugely persuaded, of course, by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, in his view that Clause 12 should have no place in this legislation.
My Lords, I am pleased to speak on this Bill for the first time in Committee. The Bill seems so far to have divided the House into at least two camps: those who oppose the Bill altogether and those who seek to amend it radically. I am of the latter camp. Amendment 26, to which I have attached my name, introduces yet another safeguard, one that upholds and supports the UK’s human rights obligations under the two main conventions on human rights. Briefly, as has been said time and again, the Government should not be further enabled to derogate significantly from these conventions in the absence of parliamentary approval.
The emptiness of this clause has already been addressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. I would support the removal of the clause altogether. In case that does not happen, however, Amendment 26 serves as an important safeguard and should prevail. The question of derogation in this context, as we heard from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, is somewhat contradictory. We all know that torture is a grave breach of the Geneva conventions, with corresponding obligations and sanctions, and, as we have learned, commission of the act of torture in any shape or form is a non-derogable offence.
By including this clause, the Government are acknowledging the extraterritorial application of the European Convention on Human Rights, something that they have hitherto declined to acknowledge. If the clause is included, there will be those who will welcome it precisely due to its support of the extraterritorial application of the European Convention on Human Rights. That said, its inclusion in its current form appears to go against the absolute prohibition on torture and is therefore a dangerous hostage to fortune and should not be in the Bill.
My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 26 and against Clause 12 stand part. My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton and all who have spoken have set out the case exactly with force and clarity, so I will just add that clearing with Parliament any proposal to derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights makes proper acknowledgment of the role of Parliament in such a serious decision, although it is not always honoured in the same way by this Government. In any case, the idea of derogation in the circumstances posited by the Bill is not only misconceived and ineffectual, as noble and noble and learned Lords have said, it undermines the basis of our standing in the world as advocates and practitioners of an international order.
The international rule of law is not the same creature as the national one. Enforcement comes up against sovereignty and is not strong. This is reflected in the part played by the veto, so it depends even more on consent, and it is that consent which is sabotaged by the multiple breaches of international law on torture, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in a set of national legislative proposals as unfocused as this provision. The Bill’s aim of clarity, fairness, certainty and speed of judicial action for our Armed Forces is admirable; the blunderbuss means of ineffective and probably unachievable derogation from the ECHR is not. It betrays our long and distinguished role as one of the founders in creating the instruments for the international rule of law.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, suggested that this Bill divides your Lordships’ House into two parts: those who wish to see the Bill disappear in its entirety and those who wish to amend it substantially. I think that the situation might be a little more nuanced than that, but like the noble Baroness, I would place myself in the camp who believe that the Bill should probably go through, but heavily amended.
On this occasion, I want to associate myself with the suggestion that Clause 12 should not stand part. Obviously, my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford has signed that he will suggest that it should not stand part, alongside the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead. On Tuesday, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, rather hoped to kill the Bill. I think that removing this clause is important. It is neither necessary nor desirable, as almost all noble and noble and learned Lords who have spoken already have pointed out.
Some severe issues are raised by this clause, in part about what message we are sending internationally. The United Kingdom left the European Union last year. We have said that, as a country, we still respect human rights and the rule of law and that we wish to play a global role. We are still an active player in NATO and in the United Nations, but what message are we sending if we say, “We might want to derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights”? Do we really want to derogate from human rights laws? Is this not a siren call? Is there not a danger that this is trying to speak to a domestic audience? I know that the Minister does not like the concept of lawfare and that she does not care for the term. However, in some ways, the clause as it stands and the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, and the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, seem to suggest that this is about speaking to an audience that wants to say, “We should not be too worried about human rights. Let us strike down some of these rules.” Surely our role in the international arena should be precisely that of supporting human rights. We will not do that by derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights.
As various noble and noble and learned Lords have already pointed out, in particular the noble and learned Lords, Lord Falconer of Thoroton and Lord Hope of Craighead, this clause is unnecessary because it is already possible to derogate. Can the Minister explain why she feels that it is necessary? If there is no good reason, the Liberal Democrat Benches will certainly not support the clause.
However, there is always a danger that, however much we might want to remove a clause, it cannot be done and amendment to it might be more appropriate or feasible. To that end, it is clear that Amendment 26 tabled by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Falconer and Lord Hope, my noble friend Lord Thomas and the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, is important. If derogations were to be proposed, it is clear that the appropriate people to make that decision are parliamentarians. It is hugely important that the Government should remember the appropriate relations between the institutions of the Executive, the legislature and the judiciary. At times over recent months and years, it has appeared that Her Majesty’s Government seem to think that only the Government should make decisions. If any derogations were to take place, they should be brought forward for a decision on an affirmative vote by both Houses of Parliament. I strongly support Amendment 26.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, for the informed proposal in his amendment and other noble Lords for their genuinely thought-provoking contributions. I will try to address them in detail, although I realise that to the perception of some I may do so inadequately.
Amendment 26 would require designated derogation orders proposed by the Government in relation to overseas operations to be approved by Parliament before being made. It is important to begin by repeating the fact that, as some noble Lords have noted, the Government already have the power to derogate some aspects of the ECHR without reference to this Bill, and the Bill will not change that. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, is correct that the bar is set high to justify derogation, but it can still be done. It is important to remind noble Lords that Parliament already has a crucial role in approving any derogation decision. It is not the intention of this Bill to change the existing robust processes which the Government and Parliament follow if and when a decision to derogate has been made.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and my noble friend Lord Faulks asked why we have Clause 12. The clause merely ensures that all future Governments will be compelled to consider derogating from the ECHR for the purpose of a specific military operation. There is no sinister or malign agenda here, as was implied by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. This does not create new law in relation to the ECHR or the procedures for designating a derogation order. In effect, it puts the intent of the 2016 Written Ministerial Statement on to a statutory footing and it will ensure that operational effectiveness can be maintained, for example, by enabling detention where appropriate for imperative reasons of security in a time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nations.
It is worth reflecting on the procedure that attends a derogation from the ECHR. If such a decision is ever made, the Human Rights Act requires that the Secretary of State must make an order designating any derogation by the UK from an article or a protocol of the ECHR. The Secretary of State must also make an order amending Schedule 3 to the Human Rights Act to reflect the designation order or any amendment to, replacement of or withdrawal from that order. Crucially, for those concerned that Parliament does not have a say in the process, I would remind noble Lords of the procedures that are already in place. A designation order to derogate ceases to have effect—it evaporates effectively—if a resolution approving the order is not passed by each House of Parliament within 40 days of the order being made. This means that both Houses will always be able to approve or reject any derogation order within 40 days of a decision. That is the process and these are the procedures.
In addition to the requirements laid out in the Human Rights Act 1998, the Government must also communicate a decision to derogate to the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe. This should include details of the measures taken and the reasons for taking them. The Secretary-General should also be informed when derogations have ceased. These existing measures provide for the appropriate level of parliamentary debate and approval of a decision to derogate. To the best of my knowledge, successive Governments have not sought to change that. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, will correct me if I am mistaken.
However, requiring a parliamentary debate on a decision to derogate ahead of time, instead of after it is made, as Amendment 26 proposes, could undermine the operational effectiveness of MoD activity or compromise covert activity that we would not wish hostile operators to be aware of. It is generally accepted, without reference to derogation powers, that military action must at times be taken without gaining the prior consent of Parliament—for example, in situations where the Government’s ability to protect the security interests of the UK must be maintained, and in instances when prior debate and disclosure of information could compromise the effectiveness of our operations and the safety of British service personnel. I submit that the same principles apply here: requiring a debate before an order is made could, similarly, have a detrimental impact upon operational effectiveness. It would effectively shackle the MoD, preventing it from doing what it needs to do, when it needs to do it. It would defeat the purpose of derogation in relation to overseas military operations, which should enhance operational effectiveness. I cannot believe that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, would wish to impose that stricture. I therefore urge him to withdraw his amendment.
Although I have argued against the proposal from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, that Clause 12 should not stand part of the Bill, it has more logic than Amendment 26. I wonder if it is a mischievous stratagem to make the Government look at Clause 12 again. I listened to the noble and learned Lord with great care and I will look at his arguments again. When they are advanced with the lucidity with which he is rightly associated, they have an allure.
Amendment 27, in the name of my noble friend Lord Faulks, is intended to prevent claims connected with overseas operations being brought in England and Wales under the Human Rights Act, whether from service personnel, local nationals or any other claimant. I thank my noble friend for an incisive analysis of the ECHR and the Human Rights Act. He rightly identified the need to bring clarity to an issue that has been dogged by uncertainty and the divided opinion of senior legal personnel. His analysis and conclusions richly inform the debate around the ECHR and the Human Rights Act, but I will comment on his amendment, which I thought was unfairly characterised by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, was a little more charitable. I detect that she is warming to the Bill, albeit with reservations.
In relation to Amendment 27, the Human Rights Act’s extraterritorial application mirrors the scope of extraterritorial jurisdiction under the European Convention on Human Rights. Therefore, it is important to note that, whatever the position under domestic legislation, as a signatory to the ECHR, to which the UK remains committed, we would still be under an obligation to ensure compatibility with the convention. My noble friend acknowledged that. We would still need to provide an effective route for people to bring claims in the United Kingdom in relation to any alleged breach of their convention rights. This was recognised by Professor Ekins during the House of Commons committee’s evidence-gathering session for this Bill.
I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, of how mindful of our obligations we are. The issue of extraterritorial jurisdiction under the ECHR has been the subject of complex legal debate, and it continues to be addressed and developed through European Court of Human Rights case law. This case law has led to some uncertainty about the ECHR’s application and has extended the territorial scope of convention obligations beyond what was understood when the ECHR was originally drafted.
My noble friend Lord Faulks has courageously recognised and gripped the reality. In recognition of that uncertainty, he acknowledged that the Government have committed to a review of the Human Rights Act. That manifesto commitment of the Conservatives was put before the electorate prior to the last general election. We have now launched the independent Human Rights Act review to examine the framework of the HRA, how it is operating in practice and whether any change is required. As part of this, the panel will examine the circumstances in which the Human Rights Act applies to acts of public authorities taking place outside the territory of the United Kingdom. It will consider the implications of the current position and whether there is a case for change.
I know that my response will disappoint my noble friend, but I do not want to pre-empt the review’s conclusions. It is the ministerial responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, not the MoD, but I anticipate and hope that my noble friend will be an informed and powerful contributor to the review.
The review does not change the commitment of the United Kingdom to the ECHR and human rights. We will continue to champion human rights at home and abroad. The review is expected to conclude in the summer, and we will consider its recommendations then. Given that current process, I respectfully request that my noble friend withdraw his amendment; that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, withdraw his; and that Clause 12 stand part of the Bill.
I have received two requests to speak after the Minister, one from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, and the other from the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. I will call them in that order.
My Lords, the Minister has reminded us that, when Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon said:
“before embarking on significant future military operations, this government intends derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights, where this is appropriate in the precise circumstances of the operation in question.”
In her letter of 26 February, the Minister indicated that Clause 12 was included to reflect this undertaking. Significantly, Clause 12 does not give the same weight to a decision to derogate as was indicated by Mr Fallon. If that is what is intended, should it not say so in words that reflect the commitment explained by Mr Fallon? What is the Government’s intention? Is it to seek to have in place an effective form of combat immunity for active operations overseas? That would be welcome but, at present, as many noble Lords have said, Clause 12 seems worthless and should not form part of the Bill.
The Bill has been drafted to reflect the overall policy intentions to try to reassure our service personnel that, before overseas operations are committed to, careful thought is given to them. As the noble and gallant Lord understands, because of the deliberate way that the Bill is drafted, the impact of Clause 12 is merely to consider, not to compel, derogation. I simply repeat my undertaking to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead: I will look very carefully at these arguments.
My Lords, I apologise to the Minister for not putting this short question clearly enough in my earlier remarks. Do the Government agree that the new duty in Clause 12, which would become the new Section 14A of the Human Rights Act, on the Secretary of State to consider derogation a judicially reviewable duty? Will it be, as I suspect it will, open to challenge in relation to the Secretary of State’s considerations, so that litigants will be able to judicially review the adequacy of the considerations, whether or not the operations were significant, and the Secretary of State’s decision not to derogate—or, indeed, to derogate—in relation to every single potential overseas operation?
The way in which I anticipate Clause 12 operating is that it is simply an ex facie reminder on the face of the Bill that a Secretary of State, if he were contemplating an overseas operation, should consider derogation. I suggest to the noble Baroness that thereafter, the existing law would govern whatever subsequent activity took place and whether or not the designated derogation order was deployed. The law is there and it is clear as to what is to be done. I think the acceptance of ministerial power to make these decisions is understood. As I have said before, that is with reference to parliamentary scrutiny, which has a very public capacity to call Ministers to account. I therefore merely ascribe to Clause 12 a reassurance that a Minister will give thought to this, but is not obliged to derogate.
[Inaudible.] The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, asked an incredibly clear question and I think the House is entitled to an answer. Would an exercise of the power to derogate in accordance with this new section of the Human Rights Act be judicially reviewable? Although the Minister gave a long answer, she did not answer the question directly. I can understand why she feels uneasy about answering it without a clear steer from officials, but I think it would be appropriate if she wrote to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the rest of us with the answer to that very important question.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Whitaker and Lady Smith of Newnham, for their support for Amendment 26 or for the clause not standing part. I also note that the Minister said on behalf of the Government that they would consider the allure of the argument of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, that this clause should not be part of the Bill at all. I am grateful for that and I think the House will be interested to hear her conclusions.
The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, was interesting but broadly irrelevant to Amendment 26 and whether the clause should stand part. I understood him to say that actually, the problems that have arisen in relation to overseas operations will never be addressed in any real form by any sort of possible derogation under the Human Rights Act, and that he could not therefore see what derogation has to do with the problems the overseas operations Bill is addressing. He then went on, in an interesting speech which I profoundly disagree with, to say that the problem is not whether or not derogation is possible but whether or not the Human Rights Act should extend to overseas operations generally.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, absolutely put his finger on it when he asked the Minister, if derogations are not intended—if derogations cannot give combat immunity—what is the point of them? As the noble and gallant Lord pointed out, it is plain from what the Government are accepting has been said in this debate that combat immunity is not on offer from derogation. I strongly urge the Minister to drop this clause, because it is a pretend clause. It pretends that derogations can help with the problem this Bill seeks to address, when they plainly cannot.
I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 26.
Before we do that, does the Minister wish to respond?
I am grateful for the opportunity to comment. When I responded to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, I did not have before me specific information relating to her question. I am now informed by my officials that if there were a derogation under Clause 12—or, presumably, a decline to derogate—this could be subject to a judicial review. I thought it preferable to share that with the House at this stage. That is without prejudice to my previous remarks that I undertake to consider everything that has been said in the debate, perhaps most significantly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead.
Amendment 26 withdrawn.
Amendment 27 not moved.
Clause 12 agreed.
Amendments 28 and 29 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 30. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in the debate.
30: After Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—
“Access to legal aid for service personnel in criminal proceedings
Within 12 months of this Act coming into force, the Secretary of State shall commission an independent evaluation of access to legal aid for members and former members of the regular and reserve forces and of British overseas territory forces to whom section 369(2) of the Armed Forces Act 2006 (members of British overseas territories' forces serving with UK forces) applies, in relation to criminal legal proceedings in connection with operations of the armed forces outside the British Islands, and lay a copy of the evaluation report before each House of Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would require the Government to commission and publish an independent evaluation of service personnel’s access to legal aid in relation to the criminal proceedings covered by the provisions in the Bill.
My Lords, Amendment 30 in my name asks the Government to commission an independent evaluation of access to legal aid for members and former members of the Regular Forces and Reserve Forces and lay a report before Parliament. This important amendment is a result of the evidence given in Committee in the other place, which repeatedly demonstrated the lack of proper support and advice personnel have received when seeking justice.
This evidence was not only from outside contributors. Johnny Mercer himself said that the MoD has a policy whereby,
“where a service person or veteran faces criminal allegations in relation to incidents arising from his or her duty, they may receive full public funding for legal support.”
However, also he said:
“That was not the case when I first came here”.—[Official Report, Commons, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill Committee, 22/10/20; col.351.]
We are a country of fairness, with a legal justice system founded on the right to a fair trial. But I wonder how many men and women have struggled to get the justice they deserve. There have been serious cracks in the system, and people have not got the right support and guidance in accessing the right to due process and a fair hearing.
Major Campbell raised the importance of having access to legal aid and advice and the importance of wider pastoral support, both for dealing with things when they happen and to ensure that cases such as his never happen again. When asked if the MoD had offered him any support when he was facing the eight criminal investigations that he was subjected to, Major Campbell said:
“No, there was none…in the early investigations under the Royal Military Police we were told just not to think about it and to get on with stuff. No concession was given to us in our day-to-day duties.”
A lack of resources and proper guidance risks breaching the Armed Forces covenant and undermines the reputation of our legal system. Does the Minister agree that there was a problem but the current Armed Forces Minister has fixed it? I do not mean to question the Minister’s ability; I seek only clarity as to whether the issue has been resolved.
The Armed Forces Minister also said that government legal services were not being funded but they are now. Can the Minister confirm whether the legal aid system for personnel has mirrored the cuts to the national legal aid system, or is it a system without these financial constraints?
As well as this, Mercer said:
“We … aim to provide legal aid case management and funding for those who are, or were at the time of an alleged incident, subject to service law.”—[Official Report, Commons, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill Committee, 22/10/20; col. 351.]
There is a big difference between an aim and a guarantee. Can the Minister confirm whether it is an aim or whether the MoD will guarantee to provide legal aid case management?
My Amendment 30 simply seeks to ensure that those personnel or veterans who need to access legal aid can do so, but there is also a serious concern about personnel not receiving the proper pastoral care and mental health and well-being support that they need when required. This is not acceptable—and why we will be supporting the important amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, in the following group. I beg to move.
I am speaking in support of my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe and his amendment. Of course, it would be open to the Minister not just to embrace this amendment but to go further; and not to wait for 12 months, but assure your Lordships that the Government will provide legal advice and support and, if necessary, representation to any member of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces who has need of it as a result of an overseas operation—whether they are an anxious suspect, an anxious defendant, an anxious witness to civil proceedings or, indeed, whether they are suing the MoD. It seems an absolute no-brainer, given speech after speech in both Houses about the anxiety that the interaction between law and war is causing our personnel. Why would the Government bring forward a Bill that causes such controversy and restricts the reach of the law without first giving the assurance that we would all like to hear from the Minister? Can the Government do this? Can the Government honour our existing service personnel and veterans with an automatic right to advice and representation, whenever they have need of it, as a result—from whatever perspectives I have described—of serving the Crown?
My Lords, this is a very important amendment and I support it thoroughly. I should declare to your Lordships that I am still chairman of the Association of Military Court Advocates. Although I am not in receipt of legal aid in respect of any case at the moment, I have received legal aid on many occasions in the past. In my experience, the legal aid authority was excellent, probably ahead of its civil counterparts in supporting counsel and solicitors who were defending servicemen, whether in this country or abroad.
There are particular circumstances that apply in this field which do not apply in ordinary civil practice. First, there are a limited number of military court advocates, mostly people who have some experience of the service. Secondly, the courts are at a distance. Catterick and Bulford—or occasionally Colchester—are at opposite ends of the country. There is also a very experienced military lawyer in Northern Ireland who deals with issues that derive there. In addition to court appearances, it is necessary to give protection to soldiers facing charges and to Air Force and Navy personnel. It is necessary to be in at the beginning, which requires driving long miles to various bases to be present at interviews, to be present when a person is charged and to give advice. There are particular exigencies in this type of practice. Full support from legal aid, which in my experience has been given in the past, is essential for the system to work well. As in every part of the justice system where people are properly represented, a fair result is likely to be arrived at.
My Lords, again I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, for raising this issue. I have looked at his proposed new clause in Amendment 30, which would indeed require the Government to commission and publish an independent evaluation of legal aid for service personnel and veterans in relation to the criminal legal proceedings covered by the Bill. I repeat the assertion to which the noble Lord himself referred: the MoD has a long-standing policy that, where a serviceperson or veteran faces criminal allegations in relation to incidents arising from his or her duty on operations, the MoD may fund their legal support and provide pastoral support for as long as necessary. We offer this because it is right that we look after our Armed Forces, both in the battlefield, where they face the traditional risk of death or injury, as well as in the courts, particularly if they face the risk of a conviction and a possible prison sentence. Because of the risks our service personnel and veterans face, our legal support offer is very thorough. I will set out some of its provisions.
The legal aid provided by the Armed Forces legal aid scheme provides publicly funded financial assistance for some or all of the costs of legal representation for defendants and appellants who, first, appeal against findings and/or punishment following summary hearings at unit level, including applications for extensions of the appeal period by the Summary Appeal Court, for leave to appeal out of time. Secondly, it covers those who have a case referred to the Director of Service Prosecutions for a decision on whether the charges will result in a prosecution. This includes offences under Schedule 2 to the Armed Forces Act 2006 referred directly to the Director of Service Prosecutions by the service police, as well as matters referred to the Director of Service Prosecutions by the commanding officer. Thirdly, it covers those who are to be tried in the court martial of the Service Civilian Court; fourthly, those who wish to appeal in the court martial against the finding and/or sentence after trial in the Service Civilian Court; and, fifthly, those to be tried in a criminal court outside the UK.
If I have not responded to all the questions asked by the noble Lord, I apologise, and I shall look at Hansard and attempt to respond further. I will explain that the legal aid scheme applies equally to all members of the Armed Forces, including the Reserve Forces when they are subject to service law, as well as to civilians who are or were subject to service discipline at the time of an alleged incident. Importantly, this system is based upon the same basic principles as the civilian criminal legal aid scheme in England and Wales. The Armed Forces scheme is designed to mirror the civilian scheme while making necessary adjustments to take into account the specific circumstances and needs of defendants and appellants in the service justice system.
As a result of that system, I am confident we already ensure service personnel and veterans are properly supported when they are affected by criminal legal proceedings. A review of legal aid, as proposed by the amendment, is unnecessary, given how comprehensive our legal support package is. In these circumstances, I urge the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for their support in this area. Turning to the speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, which I shall read with care, it seems we are not grasping the circumstances of this Bill. The situation is about overseas operations and the problems of defending oneself against criminal action in some overseas theatre—vastly more difficult than in the parallel civilian situation in the UK. I note she said the support “may” be provided. The Minister may mean “always”, but for servicemen that word sounds like “perhaps,” like some or all of the necessary support only “may” be provided.
We should think back to who we are talking about. Service personnel are different from ordinary citizens. I was involved, when Labour was in power, with drawing up the first statutes to cover slavery. When we had got over the shock that we had to try and define slavery, we suddenly realised that we had to have some exceptions. One of them was the Armed Forces, because we expect absolute loyalty from our Armed Forces, including to the point of dying. That is a very special loyalty. Surely, when they are caught up in difficult situations, there should be almost absolute support in defence of them to make sure, in all the subsequent legal action and the necessary support—which will be coming in the next group—that they lack for nothing, ensuring both that they are pastorally supported and that there is sufficient legal support for there to be a genuine equality of arms.
I will look at the noble Baroness’s response with care and listen to her response to the next group. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 30 withdrawn.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 31. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in debate.
31: After Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—
“Duty of care to service personnel
(1) The Secretary of State must establish a duty of care standard in relation to legal, pastoral and mental health support provided to service personnel involved in investigations or litigation arising from overseas operations, as defined in subsection (6) of section 1.(2) The Secretary of State must lay a copy of this standard before Parliament within six months of the date on which this Act is passed.(3) The Secretary of State must thereafter in each calendar year—(a) prepare a duty of care report, and(b) lay a copy of the report before Parliament.(4) The duty of care report is a report about the continuous process of review and improvement to meet the duty of care standard established in subsection (1), in particular in relation to incidents arising from overseas operations of—(a) litigation and investigations brought against service personnel for allegations of criminal misconduct and wrongdoing;(b) civil litigation brought by service personnel against the Ministry of Defence for negligence and personal injury;(c) judicial reviews and inquiries into allegations of misconduct by service personnel;(d) such other related fields as the Secretary of State may determine.(5) In preparing a duty of care report the Secretary of State must have regard to, and publish relevant data in relation to (in respect of overseas operations)—(a) the adequacy of legal, welfare and mental health support services provided to service personnel who are accused of crimes;(b) complaints made by service personnel or their legal representation when in the process of bringing or attempting to bring civil claims against the Ministry of Defence for negligence and personal injury; (c) complaints made by service personnel or their legal representation when in the process of investigation or litigation for an accusation of misconduct;(d) meeting national standards of care and safeguarding for families of service personnel, where relevant.(6) In subsection (1) “service personnel” means—(a) members of the regular forces and the reserve forces;(b) members of British overseas territory forces who are subject to service law;(c) former members of any of Her Majesty's forces who are ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom; and(d) where relevant, family members of any person meeting the definition within paragraph (a), (b) or (c).(7) In subsection (1) “duty of care” means both the legal and moral obligation of the Ministry of Defence to ensure the wellbeing of service personnel.(8) None of the provisions of this section may be used to alter the principle of combat immunity.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause will require the Ministry of Defence to identify a new duty of care to create a new standard for policy, services and training in relation to legal, pastoral and mental health support provided to service personnel involved in investigations or litigations arising from overseas operations, and to report annually on their application of this standard.
My Lords, in seeking to move Amendment 31, I pay tribute to the tireless and detailed way in which the Minister and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart of Dirleton, have been responding to the extensive and detailed sequence of amendments to this Bill in the last two days in Committee.
That the list of proposed amendments is so lengthy indicates a considerable degree of concern about the Bill as drafted, but my concern does not extend as far as the concerns of those who would wish to see this Bill thrown out completely. Many noble Lords, myself among them, have been arguing for some years to have a Bill introduced that would provide better protection for serving and veteran soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines from vexatious, extensive and recurrent investigations arising from their actions in past operations. This Bill seeks to meet that aim, so I do not want to see it fail, but I do want to see it meet that honourable objective more effectively.
Amendment 31 sets out to do this by seeking to require that the Ministry of Defence identifies a new duty of care as described in the explanatory statement to this amendment. I raised this aspiration in my speech on Second Reading in your Lordships’ House on 20 January. I believe a clearly stated duty of care has important benefits not only for individual service people, be they serving or veteran, but for the Ministry of Defence itself. If the MoD wants to see this Bill through to Royal Assent, the opportunity Amendment 31 provides is to state in clear and unequivocal terms how it will support better the individual service man or woman. Here is the opportunity to spell out what support will be given to a serviceperson under investigation. How often can they be questioned and over what time period? What legal, pastoral and mental health assistance should be afforded a person under investigation? How should a person under investigation be regarded by the chain of command? These questions and many more can be addressed in a comprehensive statement of the duty of care. Moreover, the amendment would require the Secretary of State, in each calendar year, to prepare a duty of care report and lay a copy of that report before Parliament.
With the greatest respect to the Minister, I have heard the argument made in challenge of some other amendments, that things have changed for the better in recent years. In some areas, that may be so, but not in this area. Were that so, the treatment of Major Bob Campbell would not have dragged on from 2003 until last year. I have raised his case, which the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, has just referred to, in your Lordships’ House on more than one occasion. He and his two colleagues are broken men. When asked whether the MoD had offered any support when he was facing the eight criminal investigations that he was subjected to, Major Campbell said:
“No, there was none … we were told just not to think about it and to get on with stuff.”—[Official Report, Commons, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill Committee, 6/10/20; col. 24.]
That is just not good enough, and the MoD must accept that.
It is not just concerned members of this House who want to see change. General Sir Nick Parker, a former Commander in Chief Land Command, has said:
“one of the key things that we have to do is to produce mechanisms that establish a really effective duty of care for those who are placed under the spotlight by malicious claims. Of course, if you deal with these things quickly, that will help, but anything that drags out, even for two or three years, puts individuals under massive pressure. If the chain of command does not have the ability to look after them, because it somehow distances itself from them, then we have got to address that as well.”—[Official Report, Commons, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill Committee, 8/10/20; col. 96.]
This amendment will address those issues.
Time is short, and other noble Lords wish to speak to this amendment, but I will make one further point; again, it is one I raised on Second Reading. It relates to the sensible presumption against prosecution set out in Part 1 of the Bill, which, if understood correctly, is intrinsically related to this issue of duty of care. It has been argued that this presumption against prosecution is not needed because there are very few prosecutions. But that is not the point. The point is that there have been an outrageous number of allegations and investigations that have proved to be groundless, resulting, quite properly, in very few prosecutions. It is well recorded that a virtual industry to pillory British soldiers was set up following the unpopular intervention in Iraq in 2003. As the present Secretary of State for Defence has said, for example:
“In 2004, Phil Shiner, a lawyer, went fishing. He fished for stories, he fished for victims and he fished for terrorists.”—[Official Report, Commons, 23/9/20; col. 984.]
A carefully thought through and properly worded statement of the duty of care would prevent such outrageous behaviour.
I have a final word on this understanding of a presumption not to prosecute. It will help investigators and possible victims to get to the truth, because soldiers will know that they can answer questions designed to establish the facts of the matter without fearing that the questioning will inexorably lead to a prosecution. Of course, if there is new and compelling evidence against someone, that is a different matter—but most investigations merely set out to establish the facts of an incident. That is a right and proper process, which in the majority of cases should be conducted free from the shadow of prosecution. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a real privilege to follow the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Dannatt, whom I greatly respect. He has raised some of the issues that we have been discussing over the last two days. I have made my views well known on those aspects, and I do not propose to challenge what he has just said. He is absolutely right in requiring there to be a duty of care set out in statute—a touchstone whereby the ways in which service personnel are dealt with can be tested.
In our own way, those who have practised in courts martial have seen the sort of improvements to which the noble and gallant Lord referred. I recall that, at the first court martial that I went to, there was a lot of swishing of swords—swords pointed at the guilty man when the decision was announced, and so on. Also, I think I played some part in the abolition of the process whereby an accused in a Navy court martial was marched into the court with a cutlass at his back. I put down a Question questioning that particular practice and, when I got up to hear the Answer from the noble Lord, Lord Bach, he announced that the practice had been abolished. But that is only symbolic of the very considerable changes that have taken place in the court martial system, which I believe have brought greater fairness and fewer problems of what one might call “shock and awe”—of a soldier going in to stand trial before a court martial of senior officers. In that way, we have sought I think to modernise the old court martial system, and we have been successful in that. If that sort of movement could be applied generally and not just in the very narrow area to which I have referred, it would be a very good thing. I wholly support the noble and gallant Lord in his amendment.
My Lords, I speak in support of this amendment, to which I have attached my name. In doing so, I convey the apologies of my noble and gallant friend Lord Boyce, whose name is also on the amendment but who is prevented by a medical issue from speaking this afternoon.
To explain why my noble and gallant friend and I support the amendment, it is necessary for me to go back to the very purpose of the Bill. It is in the Minister’s own words to reassure service personnel and veterans that the Government have their back and that they will be offered a degree of protection from the pressures and strains of malicious prosecutions. But the Government know that prosecutions are not the issue; that much has been widely acknowledged during debates on the Bill to this point. It is the seemingly endless cycle of accusations and investigations that is casting such a shadow over our service personnel and veterans, not the prospect of being brought to trial.
It is a principle of our legal system that an accused person is innocent until proved guilty—but this is true only in a narrow legal sense. It simply means that the burden of proof lies with the accuser, not the defender; it does not mean that an accused person is treated as innocent. For example, they may be held in detention. They are certainly subject to the wondering if not outright suspicion of observers, and they certainly suffer the agonies of uncertainty and the mortification of being suspected of and, in the minds of some, guilty of a criminal offence. The strain on them and their families is immense. Can anyone doubt the anguish that assailed those accused as a result of Operation Midland, despite the fact that not only were there no prosecutions but their accuser was shown to be lying? Can anyone deny that they suffered acutely—and in some cases still do?
Accusations must certainly be investigated, but such investigations will bring pain to guilty and innocent alike. How much more is this the case when the investigations are repeated and protracted? That is the evil that this Bill should address. The Government’s view seems to be that it is not possible to legislate on investigations since that would almost certainly increase the risk of UK service personnel and veterans coming under the scrutiny of the International Criminal Court. They have therefore taken an indirect approach to the problem, in the hope that codifying the factors that must be considered by a prosecutor will discourage speculative and malicious accusations. Of course, this is a wholly untested thesis; it may work to an extent, but equally it may have little impact.
For my part, I believe that the Government have by their own lights set themselves an impossible task in this Bill. They have recognised that they cannot address the real problem directly, so has come at it obliquely with a proposition that will have dubious benefits and poses real presentational risks—risks that could harm the reputation of our Armed Forces. Meanwhile, the underlying issue remains: the pressure of investigations. If that cannot be addressed legislatively, it is surely incumbent on the Government to ensure that those accused are supported appropriately during their ordeal—hence this amendment.
If we cannot entirely prevent the suffering, at least let us do all that we can to ameliorate it. The Government may say that they do so already, and there is no need to legislate on the matter, but I would find such a view puzzling. The Government have accepted that prosecutors already take into account the considerations set out in the Bill, but they regard their codification in law as necessary for the reassurance of our military personnel. If they take that view on something that they admit is not the real problem, how can they take a contrary view on something that is? That would seem to me to be an extraordinary contradiction.
The many amendments proposed to this Bill so far have sought largely to ameliorate the harmful effects that it might have. This amendment, on the other hand, seeks to tackle as far as possible the root of the problem that the Bill is intended to address, and I commend it to the Government.
My Lords, what a privilege to have heard, let alone to follow, the speech of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, so much of which I completely agreed with. One thing I would say is that, while legislators are limited in what they can do in this regard—and he and his noble friends have had a very good go at using a probing amendment to try to get the Government to stand by veterans and service personnel in real terms—the Government can actually do more.
They could do more even now to address the problem of investigations. Of course, they could not do so by legislation alone, but they could throw resources at it and redesign the nature of investigations, and they could include the noble and gallant Lord and his colleagues, among others, in creating a new investigation system that would inspire the confidence of the public at large, of wretched human rights lawyers like me and, crucially, of veterans and personnel. They could do what we have said in recent days is essential, which is to ensure that investigations are robust, independent and speedy, and not repeated. That could do a great deal to avoid the kind of anxiety that we have heard so much about in consideration of this Bill.
That is not something that any mere legislators can do, so we have to probe in this way and table amendments, such as the previous one from my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe about laying reports, and this more extensive one from the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Stirrup and Lord Boyce, and my noble friend. These amendments are, of course, necessarily limited by the scope of the Bill. I therefore understand why, for example, the noble Lord could not include in the duty of care to service personnel chronic issues of housing and of mental health problems beyond just those caused by litigation.
If the noble Lord is to return with a further amendment of this kind on Report, subject of course to the response from the Minister, he might add some provision in the duty of care for those veterans who have claims against the MoD. The focus of this amendment is, understandably, on the anxieties of those who are subject to suspicion and accusation through these lengthy investigations. I do so agree with his wider point about our society, in which the presumption of innocence as a societal concept has been chipped away at for so long. We now live in a world, exaggerated by the internet, for example, of “no smoke without fire”, which is very far indeed from the principle of the presumption of innocence. I wonder whether there is room in the noble Lord’s duty of care and duty of care report to think about veterans who are victims and who are struggling to get access to legal advice and representation in their claims against the MoD. Aside from that, I fully stand with the noble Lord and look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I draw attention to my entries in the register of interests. I had the honour to serve in the Royal Marines, during which time I served on overseas operations. I support the thrust of this proposed new clause and congratulate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and others for tabling it.
The new clause would provide for the establishment of
“a duty of care standard in relation to legal, pastoral and mental health support provided to service personnel involved in investigations or litigation arising from overseas operations”.
It also provides for an annual report on the duty of care to be laid before Parliament. This is a satisfactory solution to some of the matters I raised at Second Reading, when I stated that
“when charges such as these are contemplated, no expense should be spared in mentoring and assisting a defendant, who will need an experienced individual to guide him through the maze of criminal law and procedure. The defendant should have access to the very best legal team available and be able to access medical assistance to engage with the effect of the stress of operations, including being in mortal danger most of the time, and often in searing heat. This should all be at public expense.”
As soon as an individual comes under investigation, it appears that his colleagues are forbidden to contact him and he starts to feel isolated and abandoned. The defendant should have someone of experience from his own corps, regiment or service as a supporter he can rely upon. That supporter should be properly trained, independent and have access to the defendant at all times. As I said at Second Reading, the defendant will need the best legal team available. The Bar Council and the Law Society should be asked to co-operate with the Ministry of Defence in providing a list of suitably qualified and experienced barristers and solicitors, with their curricula vitae, to assist the defendant in his decision on who is going to represent him. The Ministry of Defence should liaise with the appropriate professional body to provide a list of experienced mental health professionals. These are just some of the steps that should be taken; others have been outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and other speakers. There will be more.
The Committee should bear in mind that these matters of culpability and responsibility are riven with difficulty. Soldiers engage in warfare not only for their country but for their comrades. They fight for their comrades and their comrades fight for them, often in the most appalling and hazardous conditions. Matters such as provocation should be gone into in great detail. We rightly respect, and have to comply with, the laws and conventions of war. Regrettably, some of our enemies do not. It would serve no useful purpose for me to give examples of some of the terrible atrocities that our troops have had to suffer. Suffice to say that the bonds between comrades forged by and in war are immensely strong.
Provocation is not the only factor to be borne in mind when determining culpability and responsibility. An individual’s state of mind will change when he is deployed on operation. He will have to be alert at all conscious times. He is in mortal danger most of the time and sleep is light and constantly disturbed. Sleep deprivation is one of the most mentally and physically debilitating conditions. The individual knows that he must keep going at all costs—he owes it to his comrades, and they owe it to him. The foregoing is the reason why I stated, at Second Reading, that I believed that
“there should be a duty on the Judge Advocate-General to bring the possibility of battle fatigue and diminished responsibility to the attention of the panel.” —[Official Report, 20/1/21; col. 1191.]
I look forward to hearing from the Minister in response to this debate, and in relation to matters I raised at Second Reading when I outlined changes that should be made to the system of courts martial. I appreciate that, on the latter matter, I will have to wait for a letter.
My Lords, I am very grateful for the opportunity to take part in this important debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and others for bringing forward Amendment 31 which would require the Government to
“establish a duty of care standard in relation to … support provided to service personnel”.
I believe that one of the most important duties of the state is to ensure that we do everything in our power to provide for the welfare and well-being of those who serve us all in the military and those who have served us in the past. That obligation also extends, of course, to their families. The recent move to give much greater statutory standing to the Armed Forces covenant, across the whole of the United Kingdom, is very welcome in that respect.
The amendment would create specific duties on the Government in relation to service personnel caught up in investigations and litigation on overseas operations. I have had the opportunity in recent times, in my capacity as a Member of Parliament, to meet with some of the ex-service men and women who have been involved in this type of case. Some of them spoke to me in the context of Operation Banner in Northern Ireland. This Bill clearly does not extend to that operation or to Northern Ireland and some of the issues relating to that were explored at Second Reading. We obviously listened carefully to the Minister’s comments during the passage of the Bill through this House and the other place and we look forward to legislation covering Northern Ireland very soon. I hope that the Minister can confirm that again today.
The experiences and feelings of the veterans that I spoke to in the context of Northern Ireland will mirror in many respects the concerns and anxieties of those who will be subject to investigation and litigation in respect of theatres overseas. It is the long process of investigation which causes most problems—a point that has been made by other noble Lords. Very often, those being investigated are elderly. The knock on the door, or the fear of the knock on the door, after many years out of service can be extremely upsetting and difficult to cope with. One spoke to me about his feelings of being very much alone, abandoned to his fate with no one to turn to, no one to whom he could really express his feelings or from whom he could seek sound advice. Those being investigated are suddenly plunged into a legal nightmare, with the potential for years of long, drawn out legal process.
I very much welcome the fact that the amendment talks about the duty of care standard in relation to legal as well as pastoral and mental health support. This is an extremely important aspect given the complexity of these cases and the passage of time. I also welcome the fact that the amendment covers civil as well as criminal claims and, for that matter, proceedings to do with judicial review. It is important that all these aspects are covered. There is a feeling that things are being looked at now with the benefit of hindsight and with the application of standards which were not applicable at the time.
There are often big financial implications. One person I spoke to cited a total lack of resources or capacity, compounded by ill-health, exacerbating the enormous stress and strain that had been inflicted on them and their family. One man who was undergoing very serious medical treatment was finding the financial as well as the medical implications very hard to bear. People feel extremely frustrated. There is understandable anger at the fact that they are being picked out or targeted in some way while, certainly in the case of Northern Ireland, many of those political voices championing prosecutions and investigations were themselves some of the biggest supporters of the abuse of human rights by terrorists and do not want any investigation into their nefarious activities.
Finally, the fact that the amendment covers the family of ex-servicemen and women and serving members of the military is also important. The families are vital and often feel the same level of stress and strain when such investigations are launched. I wish the amendment well and it has my full support.
My Lords, I have considerable sympathy with what lies behind the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and supported by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup. I cannot help thinking that it is a great pity that it was felt necessary to table the amendment at all. The reason for it, however, is the way in which we as parliamentarians and the law generally have let the military down; that is, after all, what this legislation as a whole is about. For there to be an obligation to state a duty of care standard of the sort envisaged by the amendment is a woeful acknowledgement of that. I do not think there is any equivalent in relation to our duty towards the fire brigade, the police or the NHS. Things have come to a pretty poor pass where we as a House can find so much to sympathise with in this amendment.
However, a statement to the House about the duty of care and how the standard of that duty should be reflected can do no more than state what the law is. As the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, just pointed out, there are specific provisions to deal with litigation and investigation, civil as well as criminal, and judicial reviews. But all a statement would do was say what the state of the law was. Depending on the passage of this Bill, there may be some, little or no change to the existing state of the law. What has repeatedly come through our debates is what lies behind so much of the understandable discontent: these repeated and late investigations.
Although the Bill is divided between criminal prosecutions and civil actions, the reality is that there is a blurring of the two, because the investigative duty arising from the Human Rights Act—there is no general duty to investigate in connection with a cause of action—is what precipitated many of the investigations, such as IHAT, where there were vexatious claims and even preliminary investigations leading to potential prosecutions. So it is not quite as divided as it might be. Whatever statement came before the House, it could say only, “Since there is an obligation in overseas territories to comply with the convention, if an allegation is made against a service person, there may well be an obligation to investigate”. That is what the Human Rights Act jurisprudence suggests. That means all the problems with investigations that have been encountered will continue, and it will continue to be the case even if the Bill is passed.
Where, unusually, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, is that I think something can be done about investigations, which is that the Ministry of Defence and those responsible for investigations can be better equipped and prepared for them. IHAT was such a failure because those charged with investigation were underequipped and had little knowledge of the theatre, the language, the culture or anything of that sort. If there are to be repeated investigations, they should be much speedier and better done.
So I am very sympathetic to the amendment but wonder how much it will actually achieve. Before I conclude, I refer to just one particular aspect of it, which concerns the principle of combat immunity. The Ministry of Defence has been asked a number of times to clarify its position on combat immunity. It used to be a common law concept. Quite understandably, the courts decided that they were unable to decide whether, in the heat of battle, A had been disproportionate in his or her response to B’s activities—that this was a field which was really not justiciable. However, following the decision in Smith v the Ministry of Defence, referred to earlier by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, there is some doubt about the question of combat immunity, and the case was, by a majority, not struck out. The case arose out of claims of damage in respect of Snatch Land Rovers, but presumably it would acquire to in any allegation of inadequate equipment provided to our forces.
I ask the Minister to tell the Committee precisely what the Government’s position is on combat immunity. Of course, if this amendment is successful, the Government will have to do so in any event. I am very sympathetic to the amendment; I am sorry that it is necessary, and I repeat my observation that the reason it is necessary is that we as Parliament and the judges, I am afraid, have failed the military.
My Lords, like other noble Lords—and noble and gallant Lords—across the Chamber, I welcome the amendment, even if, like the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, I regret that it is necessary. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, pointed out, it is in many ways necessary to try to deliver what the Minister said the Bill was intended to do, which is to demonstrate to all our service men and women, and veterans, that the MoD and the Government have their backs. The amendment seems to be delivering on the stated aims of the Bill in a way that much of the content of the Bill does not quite seem to do.
Perhaps I have misread the amendment and the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, has read it perfectly, but my reading of it is a little different from his. The first point is:
“The Secretary of State must establish a duty of care standard”.
It does not say, “The only purpose of this amendment is to write a report”; the report comes later. The really crucial thing is that the Secretary of State is to establish the “duty of care”; the annual reports are then supposed to look at certain things, but it is the duty of care itself that matters.
So the amendment does not say, “There’s got to be a report every year”—which, I agree, might look a bit like window-dressing. This really gives the opportunity for the Secretary of State—hopefully with advice from the leading members of the military and taking into consideration the evidence from the many organisations that have been lobbying the Government and Parliament over this Bill—to begin to ensure that we have an appropriate duty of care and that support is given to service men and women under investigation. As my noble friend Lord Burnett said in his powerful speech, there is a whole set of issues that might affect people acting overseas on operations that would not necessarily be the case when people are in normal circumstances.
So this is an important amendment. I very much hope that the Minister will be able, for once, to consider supporting an amendment. If she cannot, I hope that she can look for ways of delivering in the Bill the sort of support for our service men and women that is the intention of this amendment.
My Lords, we stand four-square behind our troops and, therefore, four-square behind Amendment 31. We want to work with government and colleagues from across the House to get this legislation right. Our country owes a huge debt to our service personnel, yet many have not got the pastoral, mental and well-being support that they require when it is most needed.
Troops and their families who have been through the trauma of these long-running investigations have too often felt cut adrift from their chain of command and the Ministry of Defence. As the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, said, this gap was clearly identified by multiple people in Committee in the other place, but it has not been identified in the Bill.
When asked if the MoD had offered any support when he was facing eight criminal charges, Major Campbell said: “No, there was none”. General Sir Nick Parker said that
“one of the key things that we have to do is to produce mechanisms that establish a really effective duty of care for those who are placed under the spotlight by malicious claims.”—[Official Report, Commons, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill Committee, 8/10/20; col. 96.]
He stated that, as drafted, the Bill does not do this.
When asked if the MoD does enough to provide a duty of care to those service personnel who go through investigations and litigations, BAFF executive council member Douglas Young said:
“In our opinion, the answer is no ... we are simply appalled by the experiences of some people who have absolutely been through the wringer for many years.”—[Official Report, Commons, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill Committee, 6/10/20; col. 5.]
Lieutenant Colonel Chris Parker said that there was certainly a need for
“a broad duty of care with some resourcing for the impact on families and the individuals themselves … It is something that the MoD would have to bring in.”—[Official Report, Commons, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill Committee, 8/10/20; col. 108.]
The MoD has let down too many personnel with a lack of pastoral, mental health and legal support when they face investigations and pursue rightful compensation. For every member of the Armed Forces who does not receive the proper support and advice during an investigation or litigation, it is not only sad but a failure of the MoD’s responsibility to its employees. We cannot deny that the MoD has lost trust among our brave service personnel, and a statutory duty of care, with regular reporting to Parliament, is a key step in rebuilding that trust. Only then will personnel have the confidence that the MoD will be on their side and support them through the difficulties and stress of an investigation or litigation.
We owe it to our excellent Armed Forces to do better. The MoD owes it to them to provide a statutory duty of care standard for legal, pastoral and mental health support, and that is why we strongly support this amendment.
My Lords, this has been an important debate, and I want to thank the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, for his careful presentation of his amendment, which covers a very important issue. I also thank him for his supportive commentary on the Bill.
Amendment 31 proposes that the Ministry of Defence should establish a “duty of care standard” for current and former service personnel and, where appropriate, their families, and that the Secretary of State should be required to report on this annually. I have looked at the specific components of the amendment, and I hope that I may be able to provide some reassurance to the noble Lord and those other noble Lords who raised genuine concerns.
I start by saying that we take extremely seriously our duty of care; the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, rightly identified that important component of how the MoD deals with its personnel. We do take it extremely seriously; we have a duty of care to our personnel, and pastoral and practical support will always be available to them. In particular, veterans of events that happened a long time ago may have particular support requirements and concerns, in which case we can put in place special arrangements for them.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, spoke eloquently about the effect on personnel of repeated investigations and accusations, as did the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, my noble friend Lord Faulks and, just recently, the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe. We have a responsibility to take reasonable care to ensure the safety and well-being of our personnel.
I covered the comprehensive legal support that we already provide to service personnel and veterans in relation to legal proceedings during our previous debate, so I will not repeat them here. I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, was rightly concerned about such provision, but I trust that, if he looks at the remarks that I made in the earlier debate, he may feel reassured.
In terms of mental health, welfare and pastoral care, a range of organisations are involved in fulfilling the needs of personnel, which will vary according to individual need and circumstance. The potential impact of operations on a serviceperson’s mental health is well recognised; the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, spoke powerfully about that. There are policies and procedures in place to help manage and mitigate these impacts as far as possible.
Despite the clear processes for categorising personnel as medically suitable for deployment, it is recognised that an operational deployment can result in the development of a medical or psychiatric condition. Therefore, specific policy and mandated processes exist for the management of mental health and well-being before, during and after deployment. These provide overarching direction on the provision of deployment-related mental health and well-being, with briefings designed to provide enough information about deployment-related mental ill-health to allow individuals, peers and family members to take steps to avoid such an outcome, to recognise the early signs of mental ill-health and to facilitate help-seeking from the right source at the right time.
We also regularly seek opinions from Armed Forces personnel and their families about the level of support. It is important to refer to that, because the MoD is not operating in some kind of vacuum; we actually have very good communication strands with our Armed Forces personnel, and I will cover a number of them. The Armed Forces continuous attitude survey—AFCAS—is an annual survey of a random sample of service personnel. The 2021 survey was conducted from September 2020 to February of this year, and the results are due to be published in May. There are no specific questions relating to legal proceedings, but questions related to welfare support are asked.
Within the welfare section of the survey, questions are asked on satisfaction with the welfare support provided by the service for both the serviceperson and their family, as well as the support that the serviceperson’s spouse or partner receives while the serviceperson is absent. Questions are also asked about operational deployment welfare package for service personnel.
Questions on satisfaction levels with the variety of welfare support systems in place are also asked, with the list unique to each service—for example, families federations, welfare teams, officers, community support teams, et cetera. Further questions within the deployment section ask for satisfaction levels with welfare support received by both service personnel and their families when the serviceperson returns from their last operational deployment. We also have the annual families continuous attitudes survey—FAMCAS—for the spouses and civil partners of service personnel. It is in field from January to April and the 2021 report is scheduled for release in July. Again, there are no specific questions on legal support.
Another avenue is available to all MoD personnel, whether Armed Forces or civilian: the regular all-staff dial-ins. Some of your Lordships may be unfamiliar with this; I must confess that, until I became a Minister, I had not heard of them. Having now participated in a couple of these, I have to say that they are an incredibly popular forum. They attract participants from the Armed Forces and the civilian staff, and the contributors are uninhibited in expressing their views and concerns. I think that over 3,000 participants were on my last call. That is another way of quickly getting feedback on how morale is and what people are feeling.
It is not just serving members of the Armed Forces who require and receive such support. As I have mentioned, our veterans also get such support. Veterans UK is the official provider of welfare services and support to former service personnel throughout the UK. It will often act in partnership with service charities or other third-sector organisations towards which veterans are directed—for example, the Royal British Legion, Combat Stress and SSAFA, which is the Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Airmen’s Families Association.
Very often, the regimental association of a veteran’s parent regiment will be the most familiar and accessible link through which the individual can maintain a link to the military hierarchy, which allows any issues of concern to be raised with the Army chain of command or the MoD outside of legal channels. This is often the most relied on and effective means of providing pastoral support. Of course, veterans can also access help and support 24/7 via the Veterans’ Gateway, which has been a very important innovation.
In addition, we fund charities and organisations through the Armed Forces Covenant Trust. Examples include the Veterans’ Mental Health and Wellbeing Fund, the One is Too Many programme, which has been awarded grants of up to £300,000, the Tackling Serious Stress in Veterans, Carers and Families programme and the Ex-Forces in the Criminal Justice System programme.
I am happy to reassure your Lordships that, in the context of many of the areas listed in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, we already publish the comprehensive annual report on the Armed Forces covenant—the Armed Forces Bill currently progressing through the other place is giving statutory import to the Armed Forces covenant. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, for reminding the House of that. I reassure him in relation to his further question that the legacy issues of Northern Ireland are being addressed by the Northern Ireland Office and progress will be reported on as soon as possible. In relation to service complaints, there is a well-established process through which service personnel can make complaints. The Service Complaints Ombudsman reports annually to Parliament on this.
These are all well-established policies and processes and, of course, we continually review them to ensure that they provide the best support and care possible for our personnel. I hope that the detail that I have provided has reassured your Lordships about the way in which the MoD both acknowledges and specifically addresses our duty of care and provides an environment for personnel to express and raise concerns. We are clear on our responsibilities to provide the right support to our personnel, both serving and veterans, and to seek to improve and build on this wherever necessary. I do not believe, therefore, that setting a standard for duty of care in the Bill is necessary, nor does it require an annual report to Parliament. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords and noble and gallant Lords who have taken part in this debate for their helpful contributions. At the heart of Amendment 31 is a simple issue: to get back to the original purpose of the overseas operations Bill, which is to better protect our servicepeople against a recurrent, extensive and vexatious series of investigations. The intent behind the amendment to ask the Secretary of State to lay down a duty of care is to answer some of the questions that I put in my opening speech. How many times is it reasonable for someone to be investigated and over what period? What should the attitude of the chain of command be?
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, for her response to the debate but, with the greatest respect to her, its principal part was to list the wider welfare provision for the Armed Forces provided by the Ministry of Defence and service charities. I know all that; I was head of my service through difficult times. With Bryn Parry, I co-founded Help for Heroes. I know what we are trying to do but, with the greatest respect, that part of the speech of the noble Baroness, whom I admire enormously, misses the point behind this amendment, which is simply to lay down a duty of care to bring to an end these recurrent, vexatious and almost unending—in Major Campbell’s case, there were eight—investigations.
I am grateful for the support that has been voiced for this amendment by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, and on behalf of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce. Both are former Chiefs of the Defence Staff and each is a former head of the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force. Bear in mind that I am a former head of the Army. I am grateful for the support that has come from Members of all political parties in this House, but I am deeply disappointed that the Minister does not see the opportunity that this amendment poses. It gives the Ministry of Defence an opportunity to say, in simple and plain terms, how it can solve the problem of incessant vexatious investigations.
I regret that I decided not to press this amendment to a Division at this stage. I note that the Minister did not invite me to have further conversations with her, with her officials or with Johnny Mercer, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans. If she wishes to extend that invitation, I will gladly accept it. But I am quite certain that, with the support of the representatives of the armed services who have spoken and from all political parties, we will return to this on Report. If I do not feel that we have reached satisfaction in getting to the nub of the purpose of the Bill, which I have repeated several times, we will press this to a Division on Report. In advance of that, I beg leave to withdraw this amendment at this stage.
Amendment 31 withdrawn.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 32. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in debate.
32: After Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—
“Liability for using novel technologies: review
(1) Within 3 months of this Act being passed, the Secretary of State must commission a review of the implications of increasing autonomy associated with the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, including in weapons systems, for legal proceedings against armed forces personnel that arise from overseas operations, and produce recommendations for favourable legal environments for UK armed forces operating overseas, including instilling domestic processes and engaging in the shaping of international agreements and institutions.(2) The review must consider—(a) what protection and guidance armed forces personnel need to minimise the risk of legal proceedings being brought against them which relate to overseas operations in response to novel technologies,(b) how international and domestic legal frameworks governing overseas operations need to be updated in response to novel technologies, and(c) what novel technologies could emerge from the Ministry of Defence and the United Kingdom's allies, and from the private sector, which could be used in overseas operations.(3) Within the period of one year beginning on the day on which the review is commissioned, the Secretary of State must lay a report before Parliament of its findings and recommendations.”
My Lords, Amendment 32 stands in my name and in the names of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton of Richmond, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. It raises a very different matter from those with which we have been dealing until now in Committee. At first sight, the amendment may appear out of place in this Bill. I hope, however, to persuade your Lordships that, far from being irrelevant, it is directly relevant to many personnel who are, or will be, engaged in overseas operations, and that the numbers of those to whom it is relevant will only increase.
The amendment focuses on the protection and guidance that Armed Forces personnel need to ensure that they comply with the law, including international humanitarian law; the best way of minimising the risk of legal proceedings being brought against them; and explaining how international and domestic legal frameworks need to be updated. These are all as a consequence of the use of novel technologies which could emerge from or be deployed by the Ministry of Defence, UK allies or the private sector. In this day and age, the private sector is often deployed with our Armed Forces in overseas operations as part of a multinational force.
The amendment imposes an obligation on the Secretary of State, within three months of the passing of this Act, to commission a review of the relevant issues; sets out what that review must consider; and obliges the Secretary of State, within a year of the date from which it is commissioned, to lay a report before Parliament of its findings and recommendations.
It is remarkable that almost all the debate in Committee so far—both on the first day and today—has been about deployment of military force and the risk to which it exposes our forces, based on past experience. Little or no mention has been made of the changing face of war. I may have missed it, but I cannot recollect any mention being made of that element.
We often criticise armies who train “to fight the last war”. The real problem, however, is that training is based on mistaken notions of what the next war will be like. We have a fair idea of what a future conflict will be like, so we should not be a victim to that mistaken notion. I can easily think of a relatively straightforward current example of modern warfare which encapsulates the challenges that will be generated for our military.
The provisions of Clause 1(3) set out that the presumption against prosecution applies only in respect of alleged conduct which took place outside the British Isles and when the accused was deployed in overseas operations. If a UAV operator works from a control room here in the UK, in support of troops on the ground in a country beyond the British Isles, are they deployed on overseas operations for the purposes of this legislation? Is their conduct taking place beyond the British Isles? Consequently, are the protections afforded by this legislation offered to them? How can this legislation for overseas operations be kept up to date with the blurring of lines between what is and is not the battlefield, without provisions of this nature being made in the Bill?
On the face of it, these may appear simple questions, but I expect the answers are complex. At some time in the future, it is at least possible that a court will disagree with an answer given by a Minister today.
Next week, the integrated review will finally be published. This is the third defence and security review since 2010. It promises to be forward facing, recognising both current and future threats against the UK and describing the capabilities that will need to be developed to deter or engage them.
When the Prime Minister made his Statement on the review last November, he said that
“now is the right time to press ahead”—
with a modernisation of the Armed Forces, because of
“emerging technologies, visible on the horizon.”—[Official Report, Commons, 19/11/20; col. 488.]
The CGS, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, recently said that he foresees the army of the future as an integration of “boots and bots”. The Prime Minister has said that the UK will invest another £1.5 billion in military research and development designed to master the new technologies of warfare, and establish a new centre dedicated to AI. He rightly stated that these technologies would revolutionise warfare, but the Government have not yet explained how legal frameworks and support for personnel engaged in operations will also change—because change they must.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton of Richmond, has, in interventions in your Lordships’ House, warned about the risks posed by the intersection of artificial intelligence and human judgment, and has spoken wisely about the risks posed by technology interacting with human error. As military equipment gets upgraded, we do not know how the Government plan to upgrade legal frameworks for warfare, both on the domestic and the international level, what this will mean for legal protection for our troops, and where accountability will lie if mistakes are made. There is nothing in the Bill that reflects the forward-facing nature of the integrated review.
I am sure the Minister will have been briefed on the provisions of Article 36 of Protocol 1, additional to the 1949 Geneva conventions, which commits states to ensure the legality of all new weapons, means and methods of warfare by subjecting them to rigorous and multidisciplinary review. Unfortunately, as we, the United Kingdom, are not one of the eight nations in the world that publish their review of legal compatibility, and I have not been able to source a copy of such a review, I am unable to see just how up-to-date that process presently is. I have no doubt that we have complied with our legal obligations in that respect, and if they are tendered today, I will accept the Minister’s reassurances in that regard. If she is unable to comment, will she commit to write about this?
It is right that we tackle vexatious claims and improve investigations, but what happens when claims focus on personnel who were operating drones? The Government have said that they have no plans to develop fully autonomous weapons, but what if claims target the chain of command in charge of them? There remain many unanswered questions which could result in legal jeopardy for our troops. My assessment is that our engagement in future international conflict is more likely to involve military operatives of new technology than it is boots on the ground.
The seminal report of the Committee on Artificial Intelligence—ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Clement- Jones—expressed this concern:
“The Government’s definition of an autonomous system used by the military as one where it ‘is capable of understanding higher-level intent and direction’ is clearly out of step with the definitions used by most other governments.”
The committee recommended that
“the UK’s definition of autonomous weapons should be realigned to be the same, or similar, as that used by the rest of the world”,
but that has not happened. That, of course, generates serious questions, not only about interoperability but about the implications for the responsibilities of our troops when they are deployed in a multinational context. My expectation is that the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, will expand on this aspect.
The UN chief, António Guterres, argues:
“Autonomous machines with the power and discretion to select targets and take lives without human involvement are politically unacceptable, morally repugnant and should be prohibited by international law.”
Does the Minister agree? If not, why not?
The final report of the US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, helpfully published on 1 March, states:
“The U.S. commitment to IHL”—
international humanitarian law—
“is long-standing, and AI-enabled and autonomous weapon systems will not change this commitment.”
Do the Government believe the same?
In its consideration of autonomous weapons systems and risks associated with AI-enabled warfare, the commission came to several judgments and recommendations. I shall refer to only three of them. In its first judgment, it says:
“Provided their use is authorized by a human commander or operator, properly designed and tested AI-enabled and autonomous weapon systems have been and can continue to be used in ways which are consistent with IHL”—
international humanitarian law. Have the Government reached the same judgment and, if so, are they willing to share their reasoning with Parliament? Publication of the current Article 36 review of legal compatibility, as the US does, would be a good first step. Is the Minister willing to at least consider doing so, and if not, why not?
Secondly, the commission concluded:
“Existing DoD procedures are capable of ensuring that the United States will field safe and reliable AI-enabled and autonomous weapon systems and use them in a manner that is consistent with IHL.”
Is the noble Baroness in a position to share a similar judgment in respect of MoD procedures and to explain why she has reached it?
Finally, among the commission’s recommendations was that the US
“Work with allies to develop international standards of practice for the development, testing, and use of AI-enabled and autonomous weapon systems.”
In the event that such an invitation is extended to the UK by the US, would the Government welcome it and participate in such a discussion?
We should not underestimate that drone operators face a worryingly high chance of developing post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2015, Reaper squadron boss Wing Commander Damian Killeen told the BBC that staff operating drone aircraft in Iraq and Syria may be at greater risk of mental trauma. Does the Minister recognise this effect of machines on their operators, despite the fact that they may be physically far away from the action? The Government have said that they want the Bill to protect service personnel from repeated investigations and vexatious claims. Do service personnel who operate UAVs not deserve to be protected, and will they be by this legislation?
No legislation designed to deliver on an overall policy intention to reassure our service personnel in the event that they are deployed overseas can deliver on that intention in this part of the 21st century without engaging the issues which this amendment addresses. Without this or a similar amendment, I fear that this legislation will be out of date as soon as it receives Royal Assent. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, in supporting his Amendment 32, which he introduced so persuasively and expertly. A few years ago, I chaired the House of Lords Select Committee on AI, which considered the economic, ethical and social implications of advances in artificial intelligence. In our report published in April 2018, entitled AI in the UK: Ready, Willing and Able?, we addressed the issue of military use of AI and stated:
“Perhaps the most emotive and high-stakes area of AI development today is its use for military purposes”,
recommending that this area merited a “full inquiry” on its own. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, made plain, regrettably, it seems not yet to have attracted such an inquiry or even any serious examination. I am therefore extremely grateful to the noble Lord for creating the opportunity to follow up on some of the issues we raised in connection with the deployment of AI and some of the challenges we outlined. It is also a privilege to be a co-signatory with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton, who too has thought so carefully about issues involving the human interface with technology.
The broad context, as the noble Lord, Lord Browne, has said, is the unknowns and uncertainties in policy, legal and regulatory terms that new technology in military use can generate. His concerns about complications and the personal liabilities to which it exposes deployed forces are widely shared by those who understand the capabilities of new technology. That is all the more so in a multilateral context where other countries may be using technologies that we would either not deploy or the use of which could create potential vulnerabilities for our troops.
Looking back to our report, one of the things that concerned us more than anything else was the grey area surrounding the definition of lethal autonomous weapon systems—LAWS. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, set out, when the committee explored the issue, we discovered that the UK’s then definition, which included the phrase
“An autonomous system is capable of understanding higher-level intent and direction”,
was clearly out of step with the definitions used by most other Governments and imposed a much higher threshold on what might be considered autonomous. This allowed the Government to say:
“the UK does not possess fully autonomous weapon systems and has no intention of developing them. Such systems are not yet in existence and are not likely to be for many years, if at all.”
Our committee concluded that, in practice,
“this lack of semantic clarity could lead the UK towards an ill-considered drift into increasingly autonomous weaponry.”
This was particularly in light of the fact that, at the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons group of governmental experts in 2017, the UK opposed the proposed international ban on the development and use of autonomous weapons. We therefore recommended that the UK’s definition of autonomous weapons should be realigned to be the same or similar with that being used by the rest of the world. The Government, in their response to the report of the committee in June 2018, replied that:
“The Ministry of Defence has no plans to change the definition of an autonomous system.”
They did say, however,
“The UK will continue to actively participate in future GGE meetings, trying to reach agreement at the earliest possible stage.”
Later, thanks to the Liaison Committee, we were able on two occasions last year to follow up on progress in this area. On the first occasion, in reply to the Liaison Committee letter of last January which asked,
“What discussions have the Government had with international partners about the definition of an autonomous weapons system, and what representations have they received about the issues presented with their current definition?”
The Government replied:
“There is no international agreement on the definition or characteristics of autonomous weapons systems. Her Majesty’s Government has received some representations on this subject from Parliamentarians”.
They went on to say:
“The GGE is yet to achieve consensus on an internationally accepted definition and there is therefore no common standard against which to align. As such, the UK does not intend to change its definition.”
So, no change there until later in the year in December 2020, when the Prime Minister announced the creation of the autonomy development centre to,
“accelerate the research, development, testing, integration and deployment of world-leading AI,”
and the development of autonomous systems.
In our follow-up report, AI in the UK: No Room for Complacency, which was published in the same month, we concluded:
“We believe that the work of the Autonomy Development Centre will be inhibited by the failure to align the UK’s definition of autonomous weapons with international partners: doing so must be a first priority for the Centre once established.”
The response to this last month was a complete about-turn by the Government, who said:
“We agree that the UK must be able to participate in international debates on autonomous weapons, taking an active role as moral and ethical leader on the global stage, and we further agree the importance of ensuring that official definitions do not undermine our arguments or diverge from our allies.”
They go on to say:
“the MOD has subscribed to a number of definitions of autonomous systems, principally to distinguish them from unmanned or automated systems, and not specifically as the foundation for an ethical framework. On this aspect, we are aligned with our key allies. Most recently, the UK accepted NATO’s latest definitions of ‘autonomous’ and ‘autonomy’, which are now in working use within the Alliance. The Committee should note that these definitions refer to broad categories of autonomous systems, and not specifically to LAWS. To assist the Committee we have provided a table setting out UK and some international definitions of key terms.”
The NATO definition sets a much less high bar for what is considered autonomous, which is a
“system that decides and acts to accomplish desired goals, within defined parameters, based on acquired knowledge and an evolving situational awareness, following an optimal but potentially unpredictable course of action.”
The Government went on to say:
“The MOD is preparing to publish a new Defence AI Strategy and will continue to review definitions as part of ongoing policy development in this area.”
I apologise for taking noble Lords at length through this exchange of recommendation and response but, if nothing else, it demonstrates the terrier-like quality of Lords Select Committees in getting positive responses from government. This latest response is extremely welcome. In the context of the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Browne, and the issues that we have raised, we need to ask a number of further questions. What are the consequences of the MoD’s thinking? What is the defence AI strategy designed to achieve? Does it include the kind of inquiry that our Select Committee was asking for? Now that we subscribe to the common NATO definition of LAWS, will it deal specifically with the liability and international and domestic legal and ethical framework issues which are central to this amendment? If not, a review of the type envisaged by this amendment is essential.
The final report of the US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, has taken a comprehensive approach to the issues involved. He has quoted three very important conclusions and asked whether the Government agree in respect of our own autonomous weapons. Three further crucial recommendations were made by the commission:
“The United States must work closely with its allies to develop standards of practice regarding how states should responsibly develop, test, and employ AI-enabled and autonomous weapon systems”,
“United States should actively pursue the development of technologies and strategies that could enable effective and secure verification of future arms control agreements involving uses of AI technologies.”
Finally, of particular importance in this context,
“countries must take actions which focus on reducing risks associated with AI-enabled and autonomous weapon systems and encourage safety and compliance with IHL when discussing their development, deployment, and use”.
Will the defence AI strategy or indeed the integrated review undertake as wide an inquiry, and would it come to the same or similar conclusions?
The MoD seems to have moved some way towards getting to grips with the implications of autonomous weapons in the last three years but, if it has not yet considered the issues set out in the amendment, it clearly should as soon as possible update the legal frameworks for warfare in the light of the new technology, or our service personnel will be at considerable legal risk. I hope it will move further in response to today’s short debate.
My Lords, I can only commend my noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, on two of the most powerful, if terrifying, contributions to this Bill’s proceedings so far. In particular, I shall be having nightmares about their projections for the potential dissonance between varying international approaches to the definition of autonomous weapons and the way in which their deployment and development matches, or does not match, traditional approaches to humanitarian law.
Regarding the Bill, my noble friend has a very good point. He makes a specific observation about the fact that a drone operator in the UK will suffer many of the traumas and risks of a traditional soldier in the field but, on the face of it, that is not covered by this legislation at all. I look forward to the Minister’s response to that in particular, but also to the broader questions of risk—not just legal risk in a defensive way to our personnel but ethical and moral risk to all of us. In this area of life, like every other, the technology moves apace, but the law, politics, transparency, public discourse and even ethics seem to be a few paces behind.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow on from the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, who always seems to be a great source of common sense on complex moral issues. I am similarly delighted to support the amendment in the name of my one-time boss, the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton. I will not seek to repeat his arguments as to why this amendment is important, but rather to complement his very strong justification with my own specific thoughts and nuances.
I will start with some general comments on the Bill, as this is my only contribution at this stage. At Second Reading I made my own views on this Bill quite clear. I felt that it missed the main issues regarding the challenges of Lawfare. Specifically, I felt that the better route to reducing the problem of vexatious claims was not through resort to legal exceptionalism, but rather rested on a series of more practical measures relating to such things as investigative capacity, quality and speed; better training; improved operational record keeping; more focused leadership, especially in the critical area of command oversight; and a greater duty of care by the chain of command. On this latter, I wholly support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Dannatt.
Having listened to the arguments deployed in Committee, I am struck by the seeming inability of even this sophisticated Chamber to reach a common view as to whether the many provisions of this Bill offer enhanced protections or increased perils for our servicemen and women. This causes me grave concern. How much more likely is it that our servicemen and women—those whose primary desire is to operate within the law—will be confused; and how much more likely is it that are our enemies—those who want to exploit the law for mischief—will be encouraged?
I hold to the view that the law, in any formulation, cannot be fashioned into a weapon of decisive advantage in our bid to rid our people of vexatious claims. Rather, the law will increasingly be exploited by our enemies as a vector of attack, both to frustrate our ability to use appropriate force and to find novel ways of accusing our servicemen and women of committing illegal acts. The solution to this problem is a mixture of functional palliatives and better legal preparedness. This amendment addresses one element of this preparedness.
As we have already heard, one area of new legal challenge will undoubtedly be in the realm of novel technologies, particularly those which employ both artificial intelligence and machine learning to give bounded autonomy to unmanned platforms, which in turn have the ability to employ lethal force. We are currently awaiting the imminent outcome of the integrated review, and we understand that a defence command paper will herald a new era of technological investment and advancement: one that will enable a significant reduction in manned platforms as technology permits elements of conflict to be subordinated to intelligent drones and armed autonomous platforms.
However—and this is the basic argument for this amendment—the personal liability for action in conflict to be legal will not cease, although it may become considerably more opaque. We must therefore ask whether we have yet assessed the moral, legal, ethical and alliance framework and protocols within which these new systems will operate. Have we yet considered and agreed the command and control relationships, authorities and delegations on which will rest the legal accountability for much new operational activity?
Personally, I have a separate and deep-seated concern that a fascination with what is technically feasible is being deployed by the Government, consciously or unconsciously, primarily as the latest alchemy by which defence can be made affordable. It is being deployed without properly understanding whether its true utility will survive the moral and legal context in which it will have to operate. I therefore offer my full support to this amendment, in the hope that it will assist us in getting ahead of the problem. The alternative is suddenly waking up to the fact that we have created Armed Forces that are both exquisite and unusable in equal measure.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Browne, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton, for bringing forward this important amendment and debate. I understand my noble friend Lord Browne’s concerns about the mismatch between the future-focused integrated review, which has had long delays but will be hopefully published next week, and the legislation we have in front of us.
Technology is not only changing the kinds of threats we face but changing warfare and overseas operations in general. In Committee in the other place, Clive Baldwin of Human Rights Watch neatly summed this up by suggesting that
“we are seeing a breakdown in what is the beginning and the end of an armed conflict, what is the battlefield and what decisions are made in which country … The artificial distinction of an overseas operation with a clear beginning, a clear theatre and a clear end is one that is very much breaking down.”—[Official Report, Commons, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill Committee, 6/10/20; col. 67.]
How is this reflected in the Bill?
When the Prime Minister gave his speech on the integrated review last year, he rightly said that “technologies …will revolutionise warfare” and announced a new centre dedicated to AI and an RAF fighter system that will harness AI and drone technology. This sounds impressive but, as my noble friend Lord Browne said, as military equipment gets upgraded, we do not know how the Government plan to upgrade legal frameworks for warfare and what this means in terms of legal protection for our troops.
We must absolutely tackle vexatious claims and stop the cycle of reinvestigations, but how will claims against drone operators or personnel operating new technology be handled? Do those service personnel who operate UAVs not deserve to be protected? And how will legal jeopardy for our troops be avoided?
As new technology develops, so too must our domestic and international frameworks. The final report of the US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence stated that the US commitment to international humanitarian law
“is longstanding, and AI-enabled and autonomous weapon systems will not change this commitment.”
Do the Government believe the same?
I would also like to highlight the serious impact on troops who might not be overseas, but who are operating drones abroad. A former drone pilot told the Daily Mirror:
“The days are long and hard and can be mentally exhausting. And although UAV pilots are detached from the real battle, it can still be traumatic, especially if you are conducting after-action surveillance.”
The RUSI research fellow Justin Bronk also said that, as drone operators switched daily between potentially lethal operations and family life, this could be extremely draining and psychologically taxing. What mental health and pastoral support is given to these troops currently? Drone operators may not be physically overseas, but they are very much taking part in overseas operations. With unmanned warfare more common in future conflicts, I would argue that failing to include those operations in the Bill may cause service personnel issues down the line.
I would like to hear from the Minister how this legislation will keep up to date with how overseas operations operate, and whether she is supportive of a review along the lines of Amendment 32—and, if not, why not?
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, for tabling this amendment, which is fascinating and raises substantial issues. One only had to listen to the informed but very different contributions from the noble Lord himself, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, then to a different perspective from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton of Richmond, and, finally, the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, to get a flavour of both the depth and the technical complexity of these issues.
There is no doubt that the increasing adoption of new and innovative technologies on the battlefield is changing how military operations are conducted. Gone are the three domains; we are now in the five domains. Military effects can now be delivered in cyberspace, and precision weapons systems can now be operated remotely from the UK and from third countries. I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, is motivated by a genuine interest in these new technologies, how they influence military operations and the implications for our Armed Forces personnel involved in overseas operations—and that is an important question to ask.
However, I suggest to the noble Lord that it is not within the remit of the Bill to consider the effect that developing technologies might have on the future international and domestic legal frameworks of the battlefield. At this early stage I am perhaps going to give him a slightly disappointing response: I am not persuaded that it would be appropriate to insert a prescriptive provision for such matters into the Bill. I know he is slightly pessimistic about the fortunes of the Bill without that added dimension, but I am not sure that I share his pessimism. I assure your Lordships that emerging technologies are subject to a rigorous review process for compliance with the law of armed conflict, and we adjust our operating procedures to ensure that we stay within the boundaries of the law that applies at the time.
The noble Lords, Lord Browne and Lord Clement-Jones, had a wide range of complex questions covering many diverse issues on which—I am being quite frank—I do not have information, so I cannot respond to them from the Dispatch Box. However, I found their points compelling, and I offer to write to them.
We invest consistently in research and development through NATO. The UK is a world leader in innovation in areas of new capability like cyber and, if I may say so, in our response to new world threats such as climate change. Because we place NATO at the heart of our defence, we set interoperability at the core of our developments. We very much do this in tandem and in partnership.
Having said all that, I am aware of the expertise that the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, has in these technologies and new domains, conjoined, importantly, with his legal background. I should very much welcome a meeting with him in order to be further briefed on how he sees their potential impact on Armed Forces personnel and the law of armed conflict, and to hear his thoughts on the nature of that important component of engagement with international institutions. That is an invitation I extend to him with sincerity and in good faith, and I very much hope, in light of that overture, that he is persuaded to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister, for whom I have as much respect and regard as anyone else in this debate. She has been showered with this compliment throughout the whole course of this Committee—quite rightly, in my view. I welcome her invitation to a meeting as much as I welcome the undertaking she has given to write to answer the many questions that have been posed to her. I look forward to all of that information.
I say at the outset that whether it is appropriate for this Bill to contain a provision of this nature should be tested against the proxy question I asked, which is whether a UAV operator in this country controlling a UAV or a drone over another country in an overseas operation is covered by the provisions of this Bill. If that cannot be answered in the affirmative, it is appropriate to do exactly what has been proposed in Amendment 32, if not in this fashion then somehow before this Bill becomes law, because we are asking and will continue to ask people to operate machinery in that way and we should not expose them to risks that others are not exposed to. This amendment seeks to future-proof this Bill. It expects the Government not to have all the answers now but to carry out a review of the implications of the increasing autonomy associated with AI and machine learning for legal proceedings against Armed Forces personnel arising from overseas operations.
I thank all noble Lords and noble and gallant Lords who spoke in this debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, who has an enviable reputation, well deserved, for understanding one of the most difficult issues that face our country for the future, and in the security and military environment in particular; that is, artificial intelligence and autonomous weapon systems of machine learning. His contribution was full of rich information about the nature of the challenges we face, and I thank him for his support for this amendment.
I thank my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti for her support, and I am grateful that she suggested, or perhaps implied, that my interpretation of the Bill as it stands is probably correct. I am reinforced in my desire to see this through because of her support. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton of Richmond, in his own characteristic way, made a clear argument for engagement with these issues. He has a record of service to our country, an experience which has informed his advice to your Lordships’ House. I would be interested to explore further with him his conclusion that we may end up with forces that are exquisite and unusable in equal measure.
My noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe clearly understands this issue and shared with the Committee on a human level why this matter is important. In a sense, the test that he set for the Minister is a test that she has set herself: that this legislation must deliver on the Government’s policy intention to reassure service personnel in the event they are deployed. It will not do so unless these issues are dealt with properly and openly, so that those whom we send on these operations and engage with understand our appreciation of the legal implications.
I will seek leave to withdraw this amendment, but I warn the Minister that it may come back again—maybe in a slightly different form—at the later stages of this Bill. I also warn her this is but a preface to an issue that will come back before the Government in this form and other forms—that is, debates in this House—because this is going to be the reality of our security and military operations of the future. I say as a caution to her that the committee report that both I and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, referred to is almost 800 pages long. This is a complicated and difficult subject. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 32 withdrawn.
Amendment 33 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 34. Anyone wishing to press this, or anything else in this group, to a Division must make that clear in debate.
Clause 13: Power to make consequential provision
34: Clause 13, page 8, line 36, at end insert—
“( ) In particular, regulations may amend the Armed Forces Act 2006 for the purpose of consolidating the provisions of Part 1 and this section in that Act.”
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 34. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, is a co-signatory and supporter of this amendment, but he had a clinical appointment that could not be changed.
What is immediately striking about the Bill is that it is an amending Bill to others for limitations and for the Human Rights Act, but it does not attempt to amend the overarching Armed Forces Act, though I believe that with a little ingenuity in drafting it could be done. In my amendment, I have suggested a post-enactment approach, because it would have been complicated to attempt to rewrite the first part of the Bill in a series of amendments. The reason for my approach is, of course, to bring all legislative matters of direct import for, and impact on, Her Majesty’s Armed Forces under the cover of the Armed Forces Act.
I have been advocating this approach for many years, going back to the problems that have arisen of conflicting legislation for the Armed Forces in their Acts and the Human Rights Act 1998. When that was being debated, I urged, without success, that human rights matters that the Armed Forces must follow were spelled out in their own legislation. Subsequently, I ensured that the Armed Forces covenant received its own part in the Armed Forces Act. Other legislation of direct impact on the Armed Forces and their discipline has been incorporated, in addition to the melding together of the three single-service discipline Acts into the current Armed Forces Act 2006.
As the services get smaller and are liable to be engaged in operations, their legislation under the umbrella of one Act not only makes for tidier legislation but enables those who have to live under and operate the laws that govern the Armed Forces, and to produce manuals of service law to guide individual commanders, to have a much easier task. Certainly for the particular topic of overseas operations, there is a cast-iron case for the relevant content of this Bill to be part of the Armed Forces Act 2006, just as the clauses on limitations and human rights are transcribed to the appropriate Acts.
This a probing amendment, but I am hoping for an acknowledgment of the benefit that this would bring. I beg to move.
My Lords, I remind the Committee of course of my interests and say what a pleasure it is to follow the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. He makes a very important point, which is tied to some of the points I am making, about how there has been, at times, an inconsistency in the way that we have dealt with defence matters through a series of different Acts. He made the powerful point that potentially it would help if we were to bring them together into a single Act.
I will speak to the very simple amendment in my name, which seeks to extend the territorial application of the Bill to include the Crown dependencies and overseas territories. In much the same vein as the amendment in the name of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, this would align the Bill with the Armed Forces Act, which this Bill references throughout. The Bill currently applies to a member of the regular or reserve forces, or a member of a British Overseas Territory force, as defined by Section 369(2) of the Armed Forces Act 2006, but it does not extend to the territories themselves. This creates ambiguity in its application and my amendment seeks to remove this. I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for writing to me since I tabled this amendment. Her letter, a copy of which she has placed in the Library, addresses some, but not all, of my concerns.
I will take a moment to explain why this inconsistency concerns me. It stems, frankly, from a mistake I made as the Minister responsible for taking the last update of the Armed Forces Act through Parliament in 2016. At the time, I questioned why the territorial extent of the Bill applied to all overseas territories and Crown dependencies with the exception of Gibraltar. I was told that Gibraltar wanted to pass its own mirroring legislation and that officials did not anticipate a problem.
Gibraltar did not pass mirroring legislation, and just over a year later, in February 2017, the Royal Gibraltar Police arrested three senior military officers at Gibraltar Airport, including the station commander, in a stand-off over jurisdiction while the MoD was attempting to repatriate a member of the Armed Forces who was under investigation. The Royal Gibraltar Police also seized MoD computers. While Gibraltar has now passed legislation, albeit three years later, the reverberations over this very public spat continue to be felt and resented on both sides. This incident would have been avoided had the Armed Forces Act extended to Gibraltar along with other overseas territories.
Therefore, when I see in the letter to me from my noble friend in response to some of my concerns that her officials have written that
“in practice, we consider this situation unlikely to arise”—
words very similar to those said to me five years ago—she will understand why I would urge caution. My noble friend’s letter also says that overseas territories can choose to legislate themselves. Yes, they can, but capacity is at a premium, responsibility for defence is a retained power for the UK Government, and the precedent for this Parliament to legislate on behalf of overseas territories in defence matters is set with the Armed Forces Act. What, for example, is the position with the unique status of the sovereign base areas in Cyprus? Should they at least not be covered by the Bill?
My concern is that new overseas territory forces are being created. We have recently created both the Cayman regiment and the Turks and Caicos regiment, and with good reason, to try to offer greater national resilience and deliver humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the region. Their establishment has been an undoubted success and I am unashamed in my desire to see members of those forces offered the same protection by the Bill as their UK counterparts.
My noble friend’s letter makes clear that these forces are covered by the Act when serving alongside UK forces. However, what happens when, as is very much the intention, they are not; for example, when they offer mutual support to each other during hurricane season and are not serving alongside UK Armed Forces but another overseas territory force, or indeed if they are offering support to other nations in the region? Why in this situation should they not fall under the proposed provisions of the Bill?
Situations of civil unrest are also covered by the Bill. What would happen if a situation that occurred during Hurricane Irma in 2017 was repeated, when military support was considered—although in the end not used—to support police in controlling looting? If serving alongside UK forces, overseas territory forces would be covered by the Bill, but if serving on their own, they are not. How can that be right?
While very different in nature, albeit due to the same cause over the inconsistency of territorial application, in the press the incident in Gibraltar was blamed on it being a “grey area of the law”. My amendment simply seeks to prevent ambiguity and ensure consistency in the Bill’s application for all members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.
Noble Lords will forgive me for not having discovered the letter to which the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton, just referred. My only brief observation on his concerns is my own concern that the Bill relates to access to justice in the courts of the jurisdictions to which it extends. I ask only that perhaps the Minister might, in her reply, indicate the extent to which the jurisdictions to which the amendment refers—the overseas territories, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man—have been consulted about their wishes with regard to these significant changes to the rule of law extending to their legal systems as well. As this is, I believe and hope, the last group today, I want to record my thanks to all noble Lords but to the Minister in particular for her patience and forbearance in the lengthy but important consideration of all these amendments.
My Lords, both these amendments are important but quite different. They come together as a final hurrah for the Committee stage of the Bill. Amendment 34, in the names of the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Craig of Radley and Lord Boyce, makes perfect sense as a tidying-up measure. As I understand it, we are expecting the next Armed Forces Bill after Prorogation, which would become the 2021 Armed Forces Act. I wonder whether the Minister could indicate whether that would be the time to bring together all relevant legislation on the Armed Forces. Assuming that the Bill that we are debating at the moment is passed—I hope, in a seriously amended form—it may be appropriate to put it within the purview of the 2021 Armed Forces Act.
Beyond that, I had initially thought that the British Overseas Territories, the Isle of Man and other places seemed slightly tangential. The noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, made it absolutely clear why that amendment is so important. On Monday evening, I was speaking to officer cadets at Sandhurst about the challenges of leadership in civilian life. I cited, from my time in local government, the dangers of being a new executive officeholder—equivalent to being a Minister—listening to what officials say. Saying “We consider this situation very unlikely to arise” is not something that a Minister or elected politician should necessarily listen to. I hope that the Minister listens to the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, and considers this amendment carefully.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, pointed out, this appears to be the last group of amendments in Committee. Like her, I thank the Minister, her noble and learned colleague on the Front Bench and other noble Lords for participating. I look forward to the next stages of the Bill.
My Lords, I do not know whether it was a sense of exhaustion but, until the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, set out what their amendments meant, I did not fully understand them. I understand them a little better now, and we will give them consideration. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, said that they may find a better home in the 2021 Armed Forces Act. The Minister may give an indication of whether that is sensible.
As this is the last group, I will use it to ask this of the Minister. She has committed to writing a positive library of letters; it would help if she could copy them electronically to all noble Lords who have taken part in Committee so that we can all share her wisdom. With that, I thank her and her colleagues, and all noble Lords, for making this a civilised and thoughtful debate over the last two days.
I thank your Lordships for your kind comments and the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, for his helpful and kind observation. Yes, I will undertake to distribute electronically any letters that have been copied to the Library. I am sorry if that was overlooked and it would have helped him and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, to be aware of the correspondence that I have entered into.
The amendment of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, seeks to consolidate the provisions found in Part 1 of the Bill into the Armed Forces Act 2006. I quite accept that, while consolidation can have real and practical benefits for those who work with the law by making the statute book more accessible, there are many significant factors to consider before drawing together different legislation into a single Act.
One of the principle considerations has to be whether the law concerned is suitable for consolidation into a particular Act. The Armed Forces Act 2006 established a single system of service law that applies to the personnel of all three services, wherever in the world they are operating. It covers matters such as offences, the powers of the service police and the jurisdiction and powers of commanding officers and the service courts, particularly the courts martial.
In contrast to the Armed Forces Act 2006, Part 1 of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill covers matters relating to the wider civilian criminal justice system and is about decisions made by territorial prosecutors. As we are all now aware, the intent of the Bill is to bring in measures to help reduce the uncertainty faced by our service personnel and veterans in relation to historic allegations and claims arising from overseas operations. For that reason, it is more appropriate to have it as a standalone Act; I feel that that makes clearer the issues to which it is directed and that it seeks to address.
I also observe that, as we are aware, the procedure for the Armed Forces Act is one of regular renewal: a quinquennial renewal by Parliament and, in the interim years, a renewal by a statutory instrument. A consolidation of Bills could make that renewal much more complex, and we have to be cognisant of the implications of that because the last thing that any of us wants is to obstruct or make more obtuse, in any sense, legislation that we believe in—I know that there is universal support for the Armed Forces Act, and I have always enjoyed the renewal debates. We want to make sure that we are keeping our issues clearly distinct and encompassed within appropriate statutes, so that there is a clear identification of what it is that these individual Acts are trying to do.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, has been committed to this objective, and he has been very determined in bringing the matter before your Lordships’ House. I hope that, by my explaining the genuine difficulties and challenges that I anticipate would accompany such consolidation, he will understand that there is more to this than meets the eye. In these circumstances, I trust that he would be prepared to withdraw his amendment.
I will move on to Amendment 35, in the name of my noble friend Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton. It seeks to extend the territorial extent of the Bill to the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands and overseas territories, thereby mirroring the territorial extent of the Armed Forces Act 2006. I know that this is a matter of some importance to my noble friend, and, as he indicated, I have written to him to respond to his concerns about the territorial extent of the Bill. However, I am grateful that he has tabled this amendment because it gives me the opportunity to address this issue with your Lordships.
I say to my noble friend and, in turn, reassure the noble Baronesses, Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Smith—whom I thank for their very kind comments; at this stage in the day, the Minister gets weary and such encouragement is very much appreciated—and all noble Lords that careful consideration has been given to the ways in which the Bill will impact on the British Overseas Territory forces. Some legal background might assist with this.
It may help the Committee to know that it is Section 369 of the Armed Forces Act that provides that where British Overseas Territory forces personnel are serving with our Armed Forces, they will be subject to service law as set out in that Armed Forces Act—although the position is slightly different in respect of Gibraltar, as my noble friend Lord Lancaster has said. I am happy to confirm that the Bill does not change anything about how or to whom the Armed Forces Act 2006 currently applies.
In respect of its territorial extent, the Bill extends to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This is because it is intended to address concerns in relation to historical allegations facing UK Armed Forces personnel on overseas operations.
Part 1 of the Bill places obligations on the Service Prosecuting Authority and other UK prosecutors, and in all cases these prosecutors will be based in the UK. We did not think it appropriate to place obligations on prosecutors who are based in the British Overseas Territories. However, if a British Overseas Territory wishes to give protections equivalent to those in the Bill to their territory forces who deploy independently of our Armed Forces, they can of course legislate to do that under their own legislative powers.
The extent provisions in the Bill do not mirror the broader extent provisions in the Armed Forces Act 2006, and the Part 1 protections will not apply to prosecutors who consider criminal allegations made against British Overseas Territory forces personnel who deploy independently of UK Armed Forces. As I said, if they deploy with us they are protected. In that situation, where British Overseas Territory forces are deploying independently, these personnel will be subject to the civil and criminal law of their own overseas territory.
We were clear that we felt that British Overseas Territory forces should receive the same protection under Part 1 as other members of the Armed Forces when they are serving together with UK Armed Forces, and subject to the same service law. The Bill achieves that aim.
I turn briefly to the definition of “overseas operation”, and the concern that there could be an inconsistency between UK Armed Forces and British Overseas Territory forces in relation to overseas operations. British Overseas Territory forces deployed in support of a UK Armed Forces operation that meets the definition in Clause 1(6), but in an operation within their own home territory, would be within the scope of Part 1, as the operation would be considered to be “overseas”.
In contrast, UK forces serving in their home territory —within the UK—are not covered by the measures in the Bill. That is, of course, because the Bill is aimed at UK Armed Forces on operations outside the British islands. Likewise, in the unlikely situation that British Overseas Territory forces deployed alongside UK forces operating in the UK, they would not be covered by the provisions of the Bill either.
We felt that it was important to ensure that, when there are joint UK Armed Forces and British Overseas Territory forces operations outside the British Isles, all personnel would be covered in the same way by the Part 1 measures in the event of allegations of historical offences on these operations—although in practice we consider any allegations of this nature unlikely to arise. I hope that, with the benefit of that slightly fuller explanation, my noble friend will not press his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, and the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, for their support for my probing amendment. At the close of two heavy days in Committee, this is not of prime importance in the spread of amendments, but the Bill does offer an opportunity to press for this as a default approach to legislation for the Armed Forces.
I also thank the Minister and will look very closely at what she said in defence of the current arrangements. She raised one point which could be argued both ways when she referred to the fact that the Armed Forces Act has a quinquennial review. It seems to me that these overseas operations would very much benefit from some form of review. Several amendments in the course of the last two days have suggested a review process for this Bill, however it eventually turns into legislation.
I conclude by thanking the Minister again for her considered approach, which I will study very closely. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 34 withdrawn.
Clauses 13 agreed.
Clause 14 agreed.
Amendment 35 not moved.
Clauses 15 and 16 agreed.
Schedule 1: Excluded offences for the purposes of section 6
Amendments 36 to 45 not moved.
Schedule 1 agreed.
Schedule 2: Limitation periods: England and Wales
Amendments 46 to 56 not moved.
Schedule 2 agreed.
Schedule 3: Limitation periods: Scotland
Amendments 57 to 62 not moved.
Schedule 3 agreed.
Schedule 4: Limitation periods: Northern Ireland
Amendments 63 to 69 not moved.
Schedule 4 agreed.
Bill reported without amendment.