Relevant documents: 9th Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 30th and 36th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 2: Presumption against prosecution
1: Clause 2, leave out Clause 2 and insert the following new Clause—
“Ability to conduct a fair trial
The principle referred to in section 1(1) is that a relevant prosecutor making a decision to which that section applies may determine that proceedings should be brought against the person for the offence, or, as the case may be, that the proceedings against the person for the offence should be continued, only if the prosecutor has reasonable grounds for believing that the fair trial of the person has not been materially prejudiced by the time elapsed since the alleged conduct took place.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause replaces the presumption against prosecution with a requirement on a prosecutor deciding whether to bring or continue a prosecution to consider whether the passage of time has materially prejudiced the prospective defendant’s chance of a fair trial.
My Lords, as we open the debate for the Report stage of the overseas operations Bill, I want to remind colleagues that, like many across this House, we remain determined to protect our troops from vexatious claims and shoddy investigations. We want it to be done in a way which directly tackles the problems head on, and which is in line with our international obligations. As I move Amendment 1 and speak to Amendment 6, it is with these aims clearly in mind.
I am sure that the Government will try to portray Amendment 1 as a wrecking amendment, but nothing is further from the truth. It aims to protect troops directly by removing the presumption and ensuring that prosecutors have regard to whether there can be a fair trial given the time allowed.
As drafted, the Bill is silent on the cycle of reinvestigations, and we cannot wait for the outcome of yet another MoD review before we deal with it directly. That is why we also fully support Amendment 6, which states, importantly, that there must be compelling evidence to justify a new investigation. It would place an effective framework around investigations, still allowing them to pursue new leads or witnesses when appropriate. This approach is complemented by Amendment 1, but we accept that Amendment 6 might be seen as the priority.
Ministers have identified problems with vexatious claims and shoddy investigations but are pursuing an indirect approach, and many colleagues do not understand why. We have the Bill in front of us now, so let us amend it now to solve the problems for good. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thought it would be interesting to look back at the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2019 election. It said that
“we will introduce new legislation to tackle the vexatious legal claims that undermine our Armed Forces and further incorporate the Armed Forces Covenant into law.”
You will note that nothing is said there about a presumption against prosecution or anything about the criminal law, so the proposals in this Bill have been dreamed up without consultation. Certainly, there was no consultation with the former Judge Advocate-General, Jeff Blackett, who is internationally respected for his expertise in this field. As far as I can ascertain, there was no consultation either with the Director of Service Prosecutions or any of his highly respected predecessors. How, incidentally, in the light of the manifesto commitment can the Government resist the amendment that we shall later discuss in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, on the Armed Forces covenant?
The hole in this Bill is that it does not directly address the scandal of delayed investigations and reinvestigations of service personnel. Amendment 6 would fill that gap with a code of investigation procedures. Investigations are fraught with difficulty in overseas operations. They operate in an insecure environment; potential witnesses may be reluctant to speak; there are language and cultural difficulties; and forensic services of the quality to be found in the UK may be unavailable for pathological examinations, DNA sampling, fingerprints and so on. I recall a case from Iraq in which the body of an alleged victim had been buried on the same day, in accordance with Muslim custom, in a cemetery in Najaf which covers 1,500 acres. No Iraqi witness could pinpoint the exact place and, accordingly, there could be no pathological investigation of the cause of death—indeed, in that case, it was an issue as to whether anybody had been killed at all.
It is obvious, therefore, that investigations may be protracted. It is equally obvious that the possibility of prosecution cannot be held over a service man or woman indefinitely. There has to come a point where a decision is made: should this case proceed, or should it stop? Amendment 6 proposes a workable and practicable code in which the service police or other investigator is supervised and monitored by the Service Prosecuting Authority under the direction of the independent Director of Service Prosecutions. Within six months of the report of allegations to the service police, an investigator has to be satisfied that there is sufficient evidence of criminal conduct to refer the investigation to the SPA. Once he is so satisfied, he must make that report within 21 days, submitting his case papers to date for consideration.
Under the proposed subsection (4), the SPA has power to
“order the investigation to cease if it considers it unlikely that charges will be brought.”
Alternatively, the SPA will advise and direct the investigator on the issues he needs to clarify and the direction in which his inquiry should proceed. If the investigation proceeds, the code in Amendment 6 requires that it be reviewed by the SPA every three months, when a fresh decision will be made on whether to cease or proceed with the investigation. On its conclusion, the investigator must send his final report, with accompanying case papers, to the SPA.
The case cannot be reopened at the whim of the investigators. The consent of the Director of Service Prosecutions would have to be sought and granted only on the grounds that there is new and compelling evidence or information that might materially affect the previous decision to close the investigation and might lead to a charge being made. A decision to reopen would, of course, be challengeable by judicial review. As a final back-up, the Judge Advocate-General is given power to give practice directions for these procedures.
So there we have it: a code tailored for the particular circumstances and difficult environment of overseas operations. I shall be moving Amendment 6 in due course. But I also add my support to Amendment 1. The position of the DSP has evolved. Amendment 1 emphasises an important part of his role—considering the public and the service interest in deciding to prosecute and, namely, whether a fair trial might be prejudiced by delay.
The answer to the problem of delay is not to introduce the concept, novel to serious offences in the criminal law of this country, of presumption against prosecution after an arbitrary period of five years has elapsed. Let us take a likely scenario: an ex-soldier confesses to shooting a wounded prisoner, but no evidence emerges for 10 years because the “wall of silence” of his comrades —a phrase used by the trial judge in the case of Baha Musa—has protected him.
Blanket walls of silence appear in other contexts. I once prosecuted a prisoner and extracted a confession from a fellow prisoner of the abduction and murder of a little girl four years before. The first prisoner said nothing of the man’s confession for five years. But then he became an evangelical Christian and finally reported it to the prison governor. The Government say that for such a heinous crime as shooting a wounded prisoner, the presumption would probably be waived, but by whom? Who would decide whether the threshold of heinousness had been passed? If the presumption would be waived routinely so that every murder in theatre should be prosecuted, then murder as a crime should appear in the schedule to this Bill. But if that is resisted—if there are to be degrees of murder so that the presumption would be waived in one instance but not another—what are the criteria?
I turned to the Bill to see what factors are referred to. First, it is immaterial
“whether or not there is sufficient evidence to justify prosecution”
according to Clause 1(2). Secondly, the status of the person killed is not a factor for consideration. As to whether the victim is a combatant or a civilian, captured or wounded, man, woman or child, no factors relating to the murdered person are mentioned in Clauses 1 to 3.
What the prosecutor must consider, however, is the adverse effect of operations on the perpetrator, the conditions he was exposed to and the strains and stresses of combat. But here is the most surprising thing: it is not the effect on the individual under suspicion that is considered—how he personally was affected by the exigencies of service, how he suffered from “shellshock”, to use the First World War phrase. It is not like the case of Sergeant Blackman, who remembered, after he had been convicted but in time for his appeal, that he had personally been suffering from stress, and his responsibility was thereby diminished. No; Clause 2(3) provides that
“the prosecutor must have regard to the exceptional demands and stresses to which members of Her Majesty’s forces are likely to be subject while deployed on overseas operations, regardless of their length of service, rank or personal resilience.”
The test is objective. The presumption against prosecution applies even if the personal resilience of the soldier who commits murder or a war crime is such that he is unaffected by the stresses of combat. It is a charter for the callous, psychopathic killer hiding in a military uniform.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 6. The Bill sets out to make better provision about legal proceedings for our Armed Forces when they are or have been engaged on overseas operations. The Bill’s significant emphasis on presumption against prosecution as a way of relieving some of the stress of legal proceedings implies that that solves the problem. However, it is the investigation and reinvestigation process that is so debilitating and wears people down. Prosecution may even come as a form of relief. It is important to bear in mind that even when the presumption is in place, there is no total lifting of the threat of prosecution after five years. This can still happen if the Attorney-General sees fit.
However, that is all by the way. As I have mentioned, the investigation process needs to be addressed to ensure that it remains relevant, that a watchful, supervisory eye is kept on the process so that it does not drift, that there are timelines with which investigators have to comply and that reinvestigations are launched only after the most careful judicial oversight. Amendment 6 sets out to cover all these points, as was so well articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. For that reason, it has my support.
My Lords, I shall say something about Amendments 1 and 6. Before I do, I draw attention to a ministerial Statement that has been put in the Library about overseas operations in which the MoD indicates its support for service personnel in these situations. The Statement—I hope your Lordships have access to a copy of it—says that the Overseas Operations Bill was introduced
“to provide greater legal protections to Armed Forces personnel and veterans serving on military operations overseas. The Bill would provide a better … legal framework for dealing with allegations and claims arising from future overseas operations and recognising the unique burden and pressures placed on our service personnel.
As part of the debate on this Bill, there has rightly been a focus on the support which MoD provides to those personnel who may find themselves subject to investigations and prosecutions. We are grateful to right honourable and honourable Members of both Houses for the interest they have taken in this issue and their commitment to ensuring that service personnel and veterans who are impacted by historical allegations are properly supported.
As a matter of MoD policy, service personnel are entitled to legal guidance at public expense when they face criminal allegations that relate to actions taken during their service and where they were performing their duties. This principle is at the heart of the MOD’s approach to supporting our people and is enshrined in the relevant Defence Instruction Notices. It is a responsibility that the MOD takes extremely seriously, and we keep our policies under review to ensure that they are appropriate and tailored.
Since the early days of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Armed Forces have learned lessons on better resourcing and professionalising support to those involved in inquiries or investigations arising from operations, and the mechanisms for providing this support have been transformed in recent years. The way this is delivered and by whom will depend on the specific circumstances of the case, the point which has been reached in the proceedings and, most importantly, the needs of the individual concerned.
Any individual who is investigated by the Service Police is entitled to legal representation as well as the support of an Assisting Officer who can offer advice on the process and procedure and signpost welfare resources. The individual’s Commanding Officer and Chain of Command have overall responsibility for the person’s welfare and for ensuring access to the requisite support.
Individuals who are interviewed as suspects under caution will be entitled to free and independent legal advice for this stage of the investigation. Subsequently, legal funding for service personnel and veterans facing criminal allegations can either be provided through the Armed Forces Legal Aid Scheme (AFLAS) or through the Chain of Command.
Where the Chain of Command accepts funding responsibility this is means-test exempt and therefore no personal contribution will be required. The Armed Forces Criminal Legal Aid Authority (AFCLAA) will act as a conduit for the provision of publicly funded legal representation on behalf of the chain of command, including all aspects of financial and case management. However, if available evidence suggests the individual was doing something clearly outside the scope of their duty, then it would not be appropriate for that person to receive this Chain of Command funding.
All other serving personnel and veterans facing criminal proceedings prosecuted through the service justice system, and who are not covered by the Chain of Command funding, may apply for legal aid through the AFCLAA and may be required to make a personal contribution, determined by means testing, if funded through the Armed Forces Legal Aid Scheme. This is in line with civilian legal aid scheme.
There is an important exemption from the means testing requirement, which has been waived in criminal cases arising from our Iraq or Afghanistan operations heard in the Service Court. Separately, legal advice and support is also available whenever people are required to give evidence at inquests and inquiries and in litigation and this is co-ordinated by MOD.
We also recognise that for service personnel and veterans who are involved in these processes, legal guidance by itself is not enough. This is why we have developed a comprehensive package of welfare support to ensure we deliver on our commitment to offer ongoing support to veterans.
As part of delivering on this commitment, the Army Operational Legacy Branch (AOLB) was established in 2020 in order to coordinate the Army’s support to those involved in legacy cases. Fundamental to this is ensuring that welfare and legal support is provided to all service personnel and veterans involved in operational legacy processes. The AOLB provides a central point of contact and optimises the welfare network already in place through the Arms and Service Directorates and the network of Regimental Headquarters and Regimental Associations. Veterans UK are also closely engaged in providing support to veterans and, when required, the Veterans Welfare Service will allocate a welfare manager to support individual veterans. Although the AOLB has been established to provide an Army focus to legacy issues, the support it provides is extended to the other services.
This is provided in addition to the range of welfare and mental health support that is routinely offered to all our people. The potential impact of operations on a service person’s mental health is well recognised and there are policy and procedures in place to help manage and mitigate these impacts as far as possible. The MOD recognises that any operational deployment can result in the development of a medical or psychiatric condition and that service personnel may require help before, during and after deployment. All Armed Forces personnel are supported by dedicated and comprehensive mental health resources. Defence Mental Health Services are configured to provide community-based mental health care in line with national best practice.
In terms of support for those who have left the forces, veterans are able to access all NHS provided mental health services wherever they live in the country. As health is devolved and services have been developed according to local populations’ needs, service specification varies. This can mean bespoke veteran pathways or ensuring an awareness of veterans’ needs. All veterans will be seen on clinical need. What is important is that best practice is shared between the home nations and there are several forums in place to provide this.
The Office for Veterans’ Affairs works closely with the MOD and departments across government, the devolved Administrations, charities and academia to ensure the needs of veterans are met.”
I am sorry that that was a rather long but, I think, very comprehensive statement of what is required. Of course, it is not only applicable to operational situations overseas but is also important in reference to all the Armed Forces. It would therefore seem right that this kind of thing should be legislated for in the Armed Forces Bill when it comes along.
I turn briefly to Amendments 1 and 6 in light of that provision. In my submission, Amendment 1 departs from a very clear statement of the situation in which particular prosecutions should not start or be continued, towards a very vague one where the decision is put on the shoulders of the prosecutor, who must decide whether a fair trial is likely to be damaged by the delay.
I should have thought that primarily that kind of decision is for the tribunal, which has responsibility. The prosecutor will be responsible for prosecution, but he does not know, and cannot know, the full detail of the effect, if any, of the passage of time on the defence. Therefore, in my submission—apart from the fact that it is completely vague— you cannot tell when the investigations are going on, whether it is true or not. It is a very big and difficult thing to establish during the course of the investigations.
It is important to remember that what this Bill is trying to do in the provisions to which Amendment 1 relates is to ensure that the investigations are not dragged on for more than five years. The Bill provides a very considerable spur to the speed with which investigations are done in order to be effective. It is completely easy to define, in the sense that you can tell when you are doing the investigation whether it is five years since the incident. You do not need to be thinking about whether the time passing has damaged the possibility of a fair trial. Apart from anything else, it is not very easy for the person who is conducting the investigation to have a balanced view of the situation for the defence. In my submission, Amendment 1 is not an improvement on what is in the Bill already.
On Amendment 6, the provisions that are set out in the statement which I read indicate quite clearly that the situation that is provided is much better than what would be done by the sort of detail which is provided in Amendment 6. The whole system indicates, as set out in that statement, that the matter is dealt with as a detailed attachment to the particular case and that what is required in each particular case may be very different in one from another. Therefore, in my submission, Amendment 6 is not an improvement on the Bill and I do not think that there is room for, or need for, an elaborate system of care other than what is provided in detail by the statement that I have read.
My Lords, I wish to offer whole-hearted support to Amendments 1 and 6 which were tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, also put his name to Amendment 1, and the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Boyce and Lord Dannatt, put their names to Amendment 6.
First, I wish to say something about the statement to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, has referred. I was going to comment on it later in the context of the new duty of care in Amendment 14, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, but as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, has taken the trouble to read the statement in full, and it is therefore no doubt fresh in the minds of noble Lords, perhaps this is a convenient moment to express two considerable concerns that I have in relation to the statement by the Secretary for Defence. The first is in relation to legal aid and the second is in relation to mental health support.
In relation to legal aid, there is a very serious ambiguity—perhaps not even an ambiguity, perhaps a straightforward gap—in the support that is being offered to service personnel in relation to legal aid. I refer your Lordships to the part of the passage that reads,
“where the chain of command accepts funding responsibility, this is means-test exempt and therefore no personal contribution will be required. The Armed Forces Criminal Legal Aid Authority will act as a conduit for the provision of publicly funded legal representation on behalf of the chain of command including all aspects of the financial and case management, however”—
I emphasise “however”—
“if available evidence suggests the individual was doing something clearly outside the scope of their duty then it would not be appropriate for that person to receive this chain-of-command funding.”
So this non-means-tested automatic funding that does not require a personal contribution is not available to personnel and veterans facing the gravest peril from investigation and prosecution. This is hardly comfort to those to whom this Bill is supposed to be addressed. It is those who face the gravest allegations who principle suggests should have the greatest legal support, for it is those who are facing charges that they were doing something clearly outside the scope of their duty who are losing sleep at night as they may face dishonourable discharge and very serious criminality and consequence. This is the very group who are being let down and denied automatic non-means-tested legal provision. I have to disagree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, about the Defence Secretary’s statement offering very much comfort at all to serving Armed Forces personnel or indeed veterans for the reason I set out: those in greatest jeopardy are left with least protection by way of legal aid.
Secondly, in relation to mental health provision, we know and the statement makes clear that to put someone in harm’s way in these circumstances is almost automatically to expose them to great jeopardy in relation to their mental health. Here is an ambiguity rather than a clear gap because at various points in the passages of the statement referring to mental health provision there are caveats about “where needed” “pathways in the community”, “best practice” and “local population needs”. I do not know what these words mean and no doubt the Minister will be able to clarify them in a moment, but to me it looks as if, subject to signposting and pathways, these people are being left, broadly speaking, to take their chances in a Cinderella part of the NHS. It does not seem clear from this statement that all serving personnel and veterans are given automatic mental health support. It is all “subject to clinical needs” or “subject to local population needs” and all of those caveats. That is what I would have said later about the need for the duty of care in the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt.
Returning to Amendments 1 and 6, Amendment 6 and the proposed new clause seem to me to address exactly what the Bill was supposed to: the problem of delayed, shoddy and, therefore, repeated investigations, which cause so much concern to members of the Armed Forces and veterans. Tackling this head-on, with some comprehensive statutory provision to push investigations to be timely and adequate, is a very good idea. Of course, the amendment has very distinguished and gallant supporters.
In relation to Amendment 1, respectfully, I could not disagree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, more than I do. It replaces the presumption against prosecution with a very common-sense consideration of fair trials and whether they have been compromised by the passage of time. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, says that you cannot expect a prosecutor to make those determinations and that it is not appropriate, but this is what prosecutors up and down the land do every day. It is completely within, and absolutely core to, a prosecutor’s duty to consider whether it is possible, in light of the passage of time and the possible deterioration of evidence, for the accused to have a fair trial. This would be crucial to both the evidential test and, indeed, the public interest test, which all prosecutors have to consider. If that is the case—if these are normal prosecutorial factors—this might lead some noble Lords to ask why they should be put in the Bill. They should be because we have been told repeatedly during the passage of the Bill to date that a lot of what is required is comfort—clear statutory comfort to personnel and veterans that they will not be let down by the system and that they will be protected.
Putting this fair trial consideration, and including the passage of time, alongside the new provisions offered on investigations is a very good idea. As others—the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, in particular—have said, the five-year rebuttable presumption is rebuttable. Perhaps with the triple lock it is very difficult to rebut that presumption, but it will still leave concerns in the minds of personnel and veterans that a lengthy or late investigation may lead to a prosecution. It is so much better to protect people in the way offered by those who tabled these amendments. It is a far greater protection against late, shoddy and repeated investigations than the so-called triple lock that is causing so much concern. Normally, when employers and people seek to protect those who have been under especial pressure at work and in their service, it is support, not immunity, that is offered. That is the common-sense approach offered in these amendments.
My Lords, I add my support to Amendment 1, to which I have put my name. As a former prosecutor, I do not think that the task it sets the prosecutor is likely to be all that difficult, given that it must proceed on the information available to the prosecutor at the time the decision has to be taken. It may be that the information is relatively slender at the very beginning, when he is considering whether to bring proceedings, but such as it may be, it is the information that he should take into account. If one considers the stage at which proceedings are continuing, which this clause also covers, he is likely to be in possession of a good deal more information. So I do not think that there is anything wrong in the wording of Amendment 1. The essence of it lies more in what it takes out than the simple wording of what it seeks to put in. What it takes out is the presumption. I have no difficulty with the way in which the presumption is expressed in Clause 2, but I do object to it in principle.
The interests of justice work both ways. Of course, one must have regard to the interests of the person against whom proceedings are contemplated or are in progress. But there are the interests of the complainant, too—the victim, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, reminded us. In the ordinary course, the prosecutor’s decision-taking process is even-handed, with no bias towards one way or the other. Here it is being tipped one way, without regard to what this means for the complainant on the other side. There seems no room here for any regard to be had to the gravity of the offence or its consequences, and that makes me very uneasy. It is even more troubling where the proceedings are already in progress and the question is whether they should be continued. There is no guidance here at all. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, said, where are the criteria? For example, does it matter how far the proceedings have got? To apply the presumption to proceedings already under way, whatever stage they have reached, seems very odd.
Then there is the effect of the presumption on our treaty obligations. I refer in particular to the torture convention, which we will come to discuss with Amendment 3. As it happens, I do not have my name down to speak in that group, although I fully support that amendment, so perhaps I can take this opportunity to say something about it briefly, as the point is relevant here too. I expressed my strong feelings in Committee about the way that the Bill as it stands runs counter to the absolute and unqualified obligation on this country under the 1987 UN convention against torture to take jurisdiction against any alleged offender found within its territory. This is an international crime from which there is no safe haven. It seems to me that the practical effect of the presumption will be to derogate from the convention, which the convention itself does not permit. If it is applied, the member or former member of the armed services whom it is intended to benefit will have no assurance that he will be immune from prosecution in some other country which is a party to the convention. Taking a holiday in Spain, for example, could expose that person to that risk. For that to happen would be humiliating to our reputation as a county that stands by the rule of law. Agreeing to Amendment 3 would remove that objection but, as the Bill stands, it is a strong reason for objecting to the presumption.
My Lords, I speak briefly in support of Amendments 1 and 6. There is little I need to add to the words of my noble friend who moved Amendment 1 and the particularly forceful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford.
As a criminal law practitioner all my professional life, I spell out my concern that, whatever the circumstances, there must be a fair trial in accordance with the principles of our criminal law. Defendants can be materially prejudiced by the passage of time and, as my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti said, prosecutors take this into account every day in their decisions. Certainly, in authorising prosecutions that came within my particular field as Attorney-General, I took this into account as a prosecutor. This is my concern. I hope it is the concern of Her Majesty’s Government regarding the current backlog of criminal trials in our courts.
I will give a simple illustration of what can happen in practice. First, memories fail. Secondly, circumstances are embroidered, sometimes innocently. Ask two or three people for their recollection of a fairly simple set of circumstances, and they frequently vary. I have spent many happy hours in our courts pointing out discrepancies in the accounts of different witnesses of very simple circumstances. The deeper one dug, the greater the rewards. They were frequently meat and drink to a defence lawyer who did not have much greater ammunition.
I will mention rape trials as an example. Whenever the defences consent, in my experience, the chances of a London jury convicting when no complaint is made within three weeks are not high. This is a very serious matter, which we will have to address at some stage. Time is of the essence in seeing that justice is done to both complainant and defendant.
I hope that the drafters of the Bill, in particular this clause, have sufficient experience of the dangers of justice not being done when there has been a passage of time. I support these amendments and believe that they are sufficiently important to be put in the Bill.
I support both Amendments 1 and 6. In the light of all that has been said, I need not add anything in respect of Amendment 1, but will make some brief remarks on Amendment 6. Investigating offences and prosecuting them are inextricably intertwined. To ensure fairness to all concerned—complainants, victims, defendants and prospective defendants—an integrated approach is essential.
By and large, in our civilian justice system, the CPS and police forces have, over the years, come to work very closely together to the benefit of all. In the military justice system, there can be no doubt that the creation of the post of DSP has, particularly through the work of the highly respected holders of that independent office, greatly improved the quality and fairness of service prosecutions. It is now clear that the conduct of investigations has given rise to most of the issues and, in that respect, reform is needed. This amendment is therefore greatly to be welcomed.
The amendment does not deal with instances in which there has been an error in failing to identify cases where there is evidence of criminal conduct but nothing has been done. It is not appropriate to address that at this stage; no doubt it can be covered when Sir Richard Henry Henriques has reported. However, in cases where the investigator has concluded that there is evidence of criminal conduct, the interposition and proposed role of the Director of Service Prosecutions should bring significant improvement.
In my experience of the military justice system, there are many reasons why delays in prosecution occur, but often the causes are lack of focus, insufficient concern about timeliness, and a lack of accountability—particularly the latter. It is clear that the delays that occurred in relation to Iraq arose in large part from these factors, although, as the Minister pointed out in Committee, there have been great improvements since and in the work of IHAT. The risks of a lack of focus, a failure to act with expedition and timeliness, and a lack of accountability remain, as they are endemic to any system. This clause should address those issues.
I will make one last observation. I particularly welcome the provision for the Judge Advocate-General to give practice directions to investigations of overseas operations. Although that would not be usual for a judge in the civilian system, the Judge Advocate-General has a unique role. This was particularly demonstrated by the highly successful and distinguished tenure of that office by Judge Blackett. When holder, he ensured that changes were made to keep the service justice system in line with modern procedure. The power to make practice directions for investigations is consistent with the Judge Advocate-General’s unique role and, I hope, will ensure that problems are promptly addressed as the way in which cases are investigated changes, with changes to the way in which matters should be done as well as the advent of technology.
My Lords, I support both amendments, but in particular Amendment 6 in the name of my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford. Both seek to focus on prosecution, but also deal with the issue that the Government stated at the outset that they wanted to deal with; that is, as my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford pointed out, vexatious claims. The way the Bill is presently drafted does little to deal with repeated investigations. These amendments, in particular Amendment 6, are intended to deal with precisely the problem that the Government say that they wish to deal with. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain to us how she feels that the Bill, as drafted, is going to do what the Government claim that they want to do, because nothing in the Bill is going to stop vexatious investigations.
These amendments are not intended to undermine the Bill. In moving Amendment 1, the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, said that the Government would perhaps think that it would rip the heart out of the Bill. Neither is intended to do that; they are intended to be helpful and ensure that vexatious and unnecessary prosecutions cease and that prosecutions are dealt with expeditiously, where appropriate. Unlike the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, these Benches do not think that prosecutors will find it too difficult to do the job outlined for them in Amendment 1. I support the amendments, and we will call a vote on Amendment 6, as my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford pointed out earlier.
My Lords, first, I thank your Lordships for your contributions. As has been indicated, Amendment 1 seeks to replace the presumption against prosecution with a requirement that the prosecutor, when deciding whether or not to prosecute a case, should consider only whether the passage of time has materially prejudiced the prospective defendant’s chance of a fair trial.
I say as a general comment that my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern and the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, dwelled at length on the important matter of support for our Armed Forces, as covered by the Written Ministerial Statement tabled today. The noble Baroness raised specific issues which, with her indulgence, I propose to deal with when we debate Amendment 14 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt.
I will explain why the Government are resisting Amendment 1. In doing so, I will cover much of what I said on this in Committee. First, we are not suggesting that service personnel or veterans have been subject to unfair trials. Our concerns have always been about the difficulties and adverse impacts on our personnel from pursuing allegations of historical criminal offences. Your Lordships are familiar with the character of such difficulties and adverse impacts—repeated inquiries and uncertainty hanging over the heads of our personnel for years as to whether any prosecution is to be brought.
Secondly, we are reassured that a person’s right to a fair trial—the nub of this amendment—is already protected in law by, among other safeguards, the Human Rights Act 1998 and Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Thirdly, the amendment would remove the high threshold of the presumption against prosecution. We have specifically introduced this measure to provide the additional and overdue protection that we believe our service personnel and veterans so rightly deserve, while ensuring that, in exceptional circumstances, individuals who have done wrong can still be prosecuted for alleged offences.
Fourthly and lastly, Part 1 of the Bill already addresses the potentially negative effects of the passage of time, by requiring a prosecutor to give particular weight to the public interest in finality in Clause 3(2)(b).
The intention behind the measures the Government have introduced in Part 1 is to ensure that we help to provide reassurance to our service personnel and veterans in relation to the threat of legal proceedings arising from alleged events occurring many years earlier on operations overseas. This has meant balancing the need to introduce protective measures for service personnel and veterans while remaining compliant with our domestic and international legal obligations. I accept that, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, argued, there may be different assessments of what may be perceived as issues of principle. The Government believe that the combination of Clauses 2 and 3 provides the appropriate balance between victims’ rights and access to justice on the one hand, and a fair and deserved level of protection for our service personnel and veterans on the other. This amendment, which would remove the presumption, would weaken that protection and undermine that balance.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, argued that the presumption is vague and unspecific. With the greatest respect, I do not agree. The concept of a presumption is widely understood in law, and it falls to facts and prosecutorial judgment as to whether the presumption is rebutted, whereas this amendment is in time undefined and in other content vague. I would therefore argue that it is itself unspecific and is an unhelpful substitute for the more clearly articulated and understood legal concept of a presumption.
Amendment 6 seeks to introduce artificial timelines for the progress of investigations and a power for the Judge Advocate-General to intervene to direct investigations. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, that nothing was “dreamt up” in relation to the Bill. There was a consultation on the proposed approach. As I said during the debate on this issue in Committee, I remain unpersuaded of the need to introduce the limitations on the investigative process proposed in the amendment. These limitations do not apply in civilian life to civilian police force investigations; nor, interestingly, do they apply to service police investigations in the UK, so it seems that in that regard alone, the amendment creates an anomaly. However, it would also seem somewhat premature to propose changes to the investigative process while Sir Richard Henriques’ review of investigative and prosecutorial processes in relation to overseas operations is still in progress. I agree with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, that investigations are critical. Sir Richard Henriques may have useful suggestions to make, and I suggest that we await his reports.
I set out previously and in some detail the Government’s concerns about this amendment, and I do not intend to cover all that ground again. However, I will set out briefly the key reasons why the Government are resisting it. Overseas operations should not be compared with the largely benign policing landscape of the United Kingdom, and we should not underestimate the challenges of conducting complex, robust and thorough investigations in a non-permissive, potentially dynamic and dangerous environment. Where the service police have reason to believe that an offence may have been committed, they have a legal duty to investigate it. Artificial timelines and restrictions placed on them in respect of the conduct of investigations would clearly impinge on their statutory independence.
Closing down or restricting the investigative timeline risks failing to exculpate our own forces or failing to provide much-needed closure to the families of deceased personnel. What if new evidence is claimed to have emerged which can be ascertained only by investigation? It would also bring a clearly increased risk of the International Criminal Court stepping in and determining, justifiably, that we are either unwilling or unable to properly investigate alleged offences on overseas operations.
There is already a well-established relationship between the prosecutor and the police, which ensures that a balance may be struck between further investigation and assessments of a realistic prospect of a conviction. The prosecutor can offer advice to the police but cannot direct them. That is a healthy separation of function. I submit that it would be inappropriate to fetter this discourse or to introduce a third party—the Judge Advocate-General—into the existing process. I reiterate that the same healthy relationship exists between the civil police and the Crown Prosecution Service without the need for a member of the judiciary to be involved.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked how the Bill addresses the issue of investigations. It creates a clear framework which everyone can understand around time limits for pursuing matters, whether criminal prosecutions or civil litigious matters, so that everyone involved in the process—whether the victim, the advising lawyers, the MoD, the accused or related witnesses—will now all understand that making progress with their criminal prosecution or their civil litigation claim will be made easier the sooner they set about doing that. As I have already observed—I remember saying this specifically at Second Reading and may possibly have repeated it in Committee—there is no doubt whatever that the best service you can provide to a victim or claimant is to ensure that the allegations are investigated as quickly as possible while minds are fresh and evidence is still available, and before the lapse of time may eradicate or taint what evidence there is.
For these reasons, the Government are not able to accept either amendment and in these circumstances, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw Amendment 1.
My Lords, after listening to the debate, it is clear that we are united in seeking to protect our troops from vexatious claims and shoddy investigations. Both amendments in the group seek to do this and would approach the issue head on, unlike the presumption. However, I am convinced from my previous research and from listening to the debate that Amendment 6, which has direct effect, has the appropriate priority. It seems that, while one hears little accusation of unfairness by prosecutors, as a number of noble Lords have pointed out, there is a requirement for prosecutors to ensure that prosecutions are fair. There has been much concern about the investigations, so I favour the clarity of Amendment 6. We will not divide the House on Amendment 1 and will support the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, whom we urge to test the opinion of the House on Amendment 6. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
2: Clause 5, page 3, line 27, leave out paragraph (b)
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is one of a series in the name of Baroness Ritchie designed to limit the extent of the bill insofar as it applies to the courts in Northern Ireland in order to remedy the incompatibility of the present bill with the provisions of the Belfast Agreement that require incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Irish law in a manner that ensures direct access to the courts and remedies for ECHR breaches.
My Lords, all the amendments in this group apart from Amendment 18 are in my name. Amendments 2, 9, 10, 15, 16, 17 and 30 are the core amendments and the others in my name are consequential.
The purpose of this suite of amendments is to limit the extent of the Bill’s application to the courts in Northern Ireland in order to remedy its incompatibility with the provisions of the Belfast agreement that require incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Irish law in a manner that ensures direct access to the courts and remedies for ECHR breaches.
These amendments are supported by the Committee on the Administration of Justice in Northern Ireland, and Rights and Security International, based in London. They are concerned that the Bill as drafted directly conflicts with binding provisions under the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday agreement and would roll back broader reforms of the peace process in Northern Ireland.
I raised these issues in Committee and took note of the Minister’s response. In the longer term, it would be preferable if I could secure a meeting with the Minister, along with the two rights-based organisations, to discuss these pertinent issues. For now, I shall continue.
Both these organisations concur with the Joint Committee on Human Rights and others that the Bill, as it applies to the UK as a whole, breaches the UK’s legal obligations under international humanitarian law, human rights law and international criminal law. Amendments to remove provisions in the Bill to address these breaches would also, by default, remove the incompatibility with the Belfast agreement. Should these amendments not be made, the issue of incompatibility with the Belfast agreement would remain and would, I fear, set a dangerous precedent if left unchallenged. I therefore urge the Minister to meet me, and representatives of both organisations, to discuss these issues further.
The Belfast agreement includes a UN-lodged international treaty, under which the UK is legally bound to implement the provisions within its competence. Paragraph 6—the Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity section of the agreement—includes the following undertaking:
“The British Government will complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) with direct access to the courts and remedies for breach of the Convention”.
As currently drafted, the Bill undermines this provision by limiting direct access to the Northern Ireland courts and to remedies for breaches of the ECHR in relation to proceedings in connection with overseas operations. It should be noted that the commitment to incorporate the ECHR in Northern Irish law is not limited to events in Northern Ireland.
Under Article 2 of the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol to the UK-EU withdrawal agreement, “Rights of Individuals”, the UK has made a legally binding commitment that there will be no diminution of rights in the Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity section of the 1998 agreement as a result of the UK’s departure from the EU. This commitment is given domestic legal effect through the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. It would clearly make a mockery of this Brexit-related commitment to the Belfast agreement if the Government, while simultaneously championing it, concurrently diminish rights under the same section of the agreement for other reasons. That would be the case under this Bill.
Quite clearly, the Bill would set a difficult precedent, especially in the light of the Government’s stated intentions to review the Human Rights Act and of the Written Ministerial Statement of 18 March 2020 to introduce legacy legislation for Northern Ireland that provides a level of equivalence to the current Bill.
Clause 5—in so far as it applies to Northern Ireland—would have the practical effect of reversing one of the key criminal justice reforms of the peace process. In the criminal justice review which flowed from the Belfast agreement, superintendence of the Director of Public Prosecutions by the Attorney-General was removed to ensure the independence of the prosecutor. That change was made in the context of the Attorney-General’s controversial role in decisions not to prosecute members of the Armed Forces. Clause 5 would, in effect, restore the situation whereby the UK Advocate-General for Northern Ireland would wield a de facto veto over prosecutorial decisions in cases falling under the scope of the present Bill, returning to the situation of what would be seen as political intervention in such cases. That is why my amendment seeks to leave out lines 27 to 29, which deal specifically with Northern Ireland.
As I already pointed out, I raised these concerns during Committee on the Bill on 9 March. The Minister graciously responded that
“nothing in the Bill could be interpreted as undermining the commitments contained in the Belfast agreement, and nothing that would diminish the essence of the protections that the Human Rights Act currently offers to the people of Northern Ireland.”—[Official Report, 9/3/21; col. 1585.]
But I feel that that response was totally unrealistic, hence we have Amendment 2 and all the other amendments.
It is simply not possible to read the provisions of the current Bill as being compatible with the clear wording of the codified duties to incorporate the ECHR into Northern Ireland law under the Belfast agreement. The current Bill does not allow for either direct access to the courts or domestic remedies for ECHR breaches in the cases that fall under its remit. It is also worth pointing out that there is a view within human rights organisations that Clause 11 of the Bill, as currently drafted, explicitly limits the application of the Human Rights Act, thus limiting the incorporation of the ECHR into the law of Northern Ireland.
In response to the Minister’s assertion in Committee that the Bill is already compatible with the Belfast agreement—many would contend that this is not the case, in particular the CAJ and RSI, as well as some noble Lords who spoke in that debate—I tabled the amendments in this group, apart from Amendment 18 which is in the name of other noble Lords, to seek to limit the scope of the Bill so that it does not apply to Northern Ireland because of the direct connection with the ECHR. I hoped that these amendments, which would prevent the Bill being incompatible with the Belfast agreement, would prompt a broader debate on the viability of diminishing the incorporation of the ECHR into law in the UK as a whole, as part of attempts to address the broader problems that have been identified in the Bill.
In summary, I make one final request to seek a meeting with the Minister, together with the rights-based organisations, to clarify fully the issues and to demonstrate clearly how this Bill contravenes the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, particularly in relation to the ECHR. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 18 stands in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. It is a simple amendment to Clause 15, seeking to put into legislation the promise made by the Government that the same protections in relation to prosecutions of veterans of overseas operations will apply to those who served in Northern Ireland—that is, to the 300,000 service personnel involved in Operation Banner from 1969. The amendment requires the Government to report on progress to that end before the necessary commencing regulations under subsection (2) are made. I hope that progress will come early rather than later, although I recognise that it will require courage within government—the same kind of courage as was displayed by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Johnny Mercer MP, who took this Bill through Committee in the other place.
On Second Reading, I explained that the Army and the police stopped a civil war breaking out in Northern Ireland, for which they get little thanks, just vexation, prosecutions and unending reinvestigations—largely due, ironically, to the overinterpretation of the right to life in Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. They paid a colossal price in blood: some 700 soldiers, including in the UDR, and 300 RUC officers were murdered. The equivalent number of police officers killed on a UK-wide basis would be 10,000; that figure says it all.
In reality, the Bill is limited in its provisions. Reinvestigations will not be ended but I hope that they will be curtailed. It does not constitute an amnesty, although it is worth pointing out that, since the Belfast agreement, we have already had many elements of an amnesty, including the early release of all paramilitary prisoners and the letters of comfort for IRA members on the run.
Now the only matters investigated and coming to prosecution are those involving Army veterans, half a dozen of whom are awaiting trial in relation to events 50 years ago. That process has taken a very long time. Much of the investigation evidence appears to be based on files in the National Archives at Kew, where the Troubles archaeology proceeds apace. The IRA did not leave any paperwork to be excavated, of course.
The Bill before us carries in Clause 1 a permission for prosecutors to consider
“whether or not any proceedings against a person for a relevant offence should be continued”.
This is a key provision that must be extended to Northern Ireland and just might enable the persecution to cease. Our Amendment 18 is grouped with 17 others, all in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, from whom we have just heard. Those 17 amendments are a pre-emptive strike against the extension of the Bill to Northern Ireland, which is what my amendment wants. It is being pushed hard by the legal academics at Queen’s University and the CAJ, who all seem to be more obsessed with persecuting veterans than real justice.
In the Member’s explanatory statement, the noble Baroness states that the Bill is incompatible
“with the provisions of the Belfast Agreement that require incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Irish law”.
However, in my view, she misinterprets the 1998 Belfast agreement. It said nothing about the prosecution or non-prosecution of members of the security forces. Yes, the UK Government undertook to incorporate the ECHR into British law; they duly did so in the November of that year when the Human Rights Act received Royal Assent. As the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, said at Second Reading,
“nothing in the Bill could be interpreted as undermining the commitments contained in the Belfast agreement, and nothing that would diminish the essence of the protections that the Human Rights Act currently offers to the people of Northern Ireland.”—[Official Report, 9/3/21; col. 1585.]
The Government gave a promise. I strongly want to believe that promise but I am afraid that some of the things that have happened in Northern Ireland recently show even more that there is a need for this Government, and us in your Lordships’ House, to show that we mean what we say. That is why I very much hope that the Minister will be able to accept my amendment and put it into the Bill.
My Lords, I will speak briefly in support of the collection of amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. It does not take me to remind your Lordships that this is a very difficult moment in Northern Ireland and not one to be doing anything to undermine, or anything that could be interpreted as undermining, the Good Friday agreement.
I hear the endorsement from the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, of the Government’s position: that the Bill must do nothing to jeopardise the ECHR and the agreement. With respect, however, that view is not shared by human rights analysts in the United Kingdom, in Northern Ireland and internationally. Of course, in this respect, even the perception of jeopardising the convention, and therefore the agreement, is a significant problem.
In the context of Northern Ireland, the problem stems from going down this road of de facto—or attempted—immunities and statutes of limitation in the first place. The amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, further demonstrates the difficulty with opening this Pandora’s box and going for limits on prosecution and on suits against the Government rather than bolstering the robustness and timeliness of investigations and providing adequate support for veterans and serving personnel.
My Lords, all the amendments that the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, has put before your Lordships would delete from this Bill its application to Northern Ireland. In other words, the result of these amendments would be that this defence Bill would not affect Northern Ireland.
It is vital that all defence legislation for the United Kingdom applies to the United Kingdom because the purpose of that body of legislation is the protection and defence of the whole United Kingdom. Therefore, whatever solution may be necessary for what the noble Baroness speaks of, it certainly cannot be to delete from the defence legislation of Northern Ireland an Act that will affect the defence legislation of the rest of the United Kingdom. I strongly suggest that this is not a feasible way of proceeding. I am all in favour of her having a meeting with the Minister in early course— I hope that the Minister will have time for that—but I do not think that we in your Lordships’ House can possibly accept this solution.
So far as the amendment in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, is concerned, the question of how to deal with this matter is very tricky indeed. I have been anxious about it for a long time, and I do not see it getting any easier to solve. I do not feel able to comment on the wisdom of that amendment at this time, but I would be happy to hear what the Minister has to say about it.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, although on this occasion I do not reach the same conclusion as he does. I support the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, for the reasons that she has eloquently given. I wish to add to that only by emphasising that it is not acceptable to undermine the commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights provided by the Belfast agreement. Recent events have emphasised the importance of upholding and, as my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti pointed out, being seen to uphold, both the letter and the spirit of that agreement.
My Lords, this has been an important short debate. As the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, set out very clearly in her speech, these amendments aim to limit the extent of the Bill in so far as it applies to the courts in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday/Belfast agreement provides that the Government will complete incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Ireland law, ensuring direct access to the courts and remedies for breach of the convention. When we debated a different set of amendments in Committee last month, a number of noble Lords raised very real concerns that the Bill, as it currently stands, could potentially be interpreted as undermining this requirement.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, pointed out, there are, in particular, concerns that the Bill will not allow for either direct access to the courts or domestic solutions for any breaches of the ECHR for cases that fall under its remit. When we previously debated these matters in Committee, it was made clear that this Bill does not deal with matters relating to Northern Ireland, but I would be grateful if the Minister would none the less address the specific issue of incorporating the ECHR into law in Northern Ireland.
In light of the recent tensions and, indeed, violence in Northern Ireland, it is more important than ever that the Government reconfirm their continued and unequivocal support for the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, including in all of its practical applications in terms of rights. In Committee on 9 March, I raised a number of other concerns about the Government’s general approach towards legacy issues and asked whether they remain fully committed to the balanced and well-considered approach set out in the Stormont House agreement. Some 23 years since the Good Friday/Belfast agreement was signed, and well over a year since New Decade, New Approach was published, it is increasingly important that the Government make clear their policies and general approach to legacy matters. This is all the more urgent given recent events, where, all too tragically, we have been witnessing a return to the politics of blame and division.
I appreciate that the Minister, who is always so generous in her replies, is not actually from the Northern Ireland Office, but I asked in Committee whether I could receive a more detailed reply on this subject, perhaps in a letter, or have a meeting with the Northern Ireland Office to discuss these matters in more detail. Unfortunately, neither has been forthcoming, so I would like to add to the request of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, for a meeting so that we can discuss and explore these matters further.
My Lords, important issues have been raised on this group and I thank colleagues for tabling these amendments. The Good Friday agreement is central to the ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland; we all have a vital role to play in safeguarding that agreement and building on its promise, and we must ensure that this Bill, or any other, protects it.
The Bill raises important concerns over access to justice and it should be improved for the entire United Kingdom. The Government have also promised legislation to address the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. Ministers need to get this delicate legislation right: it must be in the spirit of the Stormont House agreement; we need victims to be at the heart of legacy proposals; and the Bill must maintain a broad-based consensus on proposals, as outlined in New Decade, New Approach, which restarted power-sharing. I look forward to hearing from the Minister actual details about this, rather than the usual “when parliamentary time allows” line.
My Lords, once again I thank your Lordships for contributions to an important issue which is, for obvious reasons, very much to the forefront of our minds at the moment.
Amendment 18 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, seeks to create a new condition that must be satisfied before the provisions in the Bill can be commenced. That condition is for the Government to publish a report on the progress made in relation to legislation addressing the legacy of the Troubles. I thank the noble Baroness for her eloquent address, to which I know we all listened with both respect and interest, but I think she will understand that the Government cannot accept an amendment, no matter how well intentioned, that puts conditions on the timing of the implementation of provisions that seek to provide certainty and reassurance to our service personnel and veterans who have served on overseas operations, which is a different issue from the position of Northern Ireland.
I understand the concerns that sit behind this amendment, so I reassure noble Lords that the Government remain committed to making progress on legacy issues and we will not allow our brave service personnel who served in Northern Ireland to be forgotten. In order to make further progress, the Northern Ireland Office must continue to engage with the Irish Government, the Northern Ireland parties, and civic society, including victims’ groups. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the UK Government recognise the importance of working with all parts of the community as part of this process.
I hope noble Lords will recognise that, sadly, the pandemic has had an impact in causing a loss of momentum, but I reassure your Lordships—in particular with regard to what the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, said just a few minutes ago—that this Government will bring forward legislation to address the legacy of the Troubles that focuses on reconciliation, delivers for victims, and ends the cycle of investigations. The Government—in particular, the Northern Ireland Office —are committed to making progress on this important issue as quickly as possible. In these circumstances, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, will be minded to not move her amendment.
The other amendments in this group, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, seek either to remove references to Northern Ireland in parts of the Bill or to stop certain provisions extending to Northern Ireland. The Bill extends to England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland for a reason. Defence is a United Kingdom competence and our Armed Forces personnel are drawn from all parts of the United Kingdom, in whose name they serve. That is why the effects of the provisions in the Bill are substantively the same throughout the entire United Kingdom. It is right and desirable that the objectives of the Bill should apply throughout the United Kingdom; my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern made that point well.
However, as different pieces of legislation in the different nations of the UK are impacted by the Bill, to ensure technical compliance and drafting accuracy the necessary amendments have been effected in respect of the relevant law in England and Wales, in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. I say gently to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that the Bill is not a de facto immunity, and I think many people are coming to accept that as being an extravagant interpretation of the Bill.
Clause 10 and Schedule 4, which this group of amendments seeks to remove in their entirety, amend only the Limitation (Northern Ireland) Order 1989. These provisions introduce new factors that the Northern Ireland courts must consider when deciding whether to allow certain claims relating to overseas military operations to be brought after the primary time limit expires and set the maximum time limit for such claims at six years. It is necessary to extend similar provisions across the whole of the UK to ensure consistency. Your Lordships would acknowledge, I think, that it would be deeply unsatisfactory if the changes that the Government are introducing in relation to claims brought in England and Wales and Scotland could be circumvented by a claimant bringing their claim in Northern Ireland instead.
I am absolutely sure that the intent of these amendments is not to create legal loopholes. No one could listen to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, without understanding her commitment and sincerity about the concerns that she has articulated. The stated reason for these amendments is a concern that the Bill will undermine a specific provision in the Belfast agreement stipulating that the United Kingdom Government would complete the incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights, with direct access to the courts and remedies for breach of the convention rights. The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, sought reassurance on this point.
As I said when this issue was debated in Committee, the commitment to incorporate the ECHR into Northern Ireland law has already been met by enacting the Human Rights Act 1998, which provides for direct access to the domestic courts to vindicate convention rights, and the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which provides that the Northern Ireland Assembly may legislate only in a way compatible with the convention rights, and that Northern Ireland Ministers must also act compatibly with these rights. As currently drafted, the Government consider the Bill compatible with the convention rights. Your Lordships will acknowledge that review of the Human Rights Act is not the responsibility of the MoD.
Statutory limitation periods, which seem to be what these amendments are mainly concerned with, are generally considered legitimate restrictions on the right of access to a court. That right of access is not absolute, and the European Court of Human Rights has upheld the compatibility of limitation periods, even if these periods are in themselves absolute, including the absolute six-year limitation period for claims resulting from intentional torts in England and Wales. That was the finding in Stubbings and Others v the United Kingdom. Limitation periods do not impair the essence of the right of access to a court. Such periods 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. As such, nothing in the Bill would diminish the essence of the protections that the Human Rights Act currently offers the people of Northern Ireland. I reassure noble Lords that the measures in the Bill do not undermine the United Kingdom’s commitment to human rights and to the European Convention on Human Rights.
For the reassurance of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, I repeat that this Government remain fully committed to the Belfast agreement, the constitutional principles it upholds, the institutions it established and the rights it protects. This agreement has been the foundation for the welcome political progress, peace and stability in Northern Ireland over the last 22 years and will be protected going forward.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Suttie, have asked whether I am agreeable to meeting them. I am very happy to agree to meet them if I can help them, but it may be—and I would ask them to reflect on this—that they would find engaging with the review of the Human Rights Act, and perhaps meeting with the Northern Ireland Office, more relevant to their specific concerns. If they still wish to meet me, however, I would, of course, be happy to do that. With the explanation offered by these remarks, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate, some in favour of my amendment and others not. That is the very nature of debate: it is about achieving an opinion that can be either for or against a particular Motion or amendment—or, in this instance, several amendments.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, outlined her amendment in relation to Operation Banner. She obviously viewed my amendments as a pre-emptive strike at removing the references to Northern Ireland from the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, believed that it was important not to undermine human rights provisions, particularly in relation to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—a view also taken by the noble Lord, Lord Hendy. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who is very much a learned lawyer, said that this was about protecting the defence of the UK. While I understand that argument, I am none the less concerned that there will be contraventions of the Belfast agreement in terms of the ECHR.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, agreed about the importance of the Belfast agreement, particularly at the moment, in developing political stability—a view shared by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie—and the importance of that political stability. As I said earlier during my Private Notice Question, there is a compelling need for the British and Irish Governments to meet as part of the intergovernmental conference, a provision within the Good Friday agreement to deal with all these issues, including this one, which will become very pertinent to legacy issues and veterans.
The Minister has kindly agreed to the meeting request of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and me. I suggest, in relation to that, that we might meet the noble Baroness, the noble and learned Lord and the Minister at the Northern Ireland Office, because these are issues to do with the Belfast agreement and Northern Ireland. While my views and concerns have not been assuaged to any degree, I feel that these issues would be better explored in such a meeting, to which the noble Baroness has very kindly agreed. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
3: Clause 6, page 4, line 11, at end insert—
“( ) An offence is not a “relevant offence” if it amounts to—(a) torture, within the meaning of section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (torture); or(b) genocide, a crime against humanity or a war crime as defined in section 50 of the International Criminal Court Act 2001 (meaning of “genocide”, “crime against humanity” and “war crime”).”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that the presumption against prosecution does not apply to war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide or torture.
My Lords, Amendment 3 is in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and my noble friends Lord Campbell and Lord West. The amendment will provide that the presumption against prosecution does not apply to war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture.
Maybe after a lifetime in politics I was affected by some uncharacteristic naivety in thinking that the Government, faced by almost universal and expert opposition on this aspect of the Bill, would by now have changed their mind. Reasonable and knowledgeable people can only be dismayed by the obduracy of Ministers in this situation, and it is why there is a more than normal responsibility on this House to ask the Commons to look again, reflect and change the Government’s mind, before lasting and serious damage is done to the interests of our Armed Forces and the reputation of this country.
The objective of the Bill is clear and understandable: it is to protect our troops in foreign operations from vexatious prosecutions. Who could reasonably object to that? Certainly not me. But sadly, the Bill does not do what it claims to do and instead actually harms those whom we seek to protect. At best it would prevent only 1% of prosecutions, but it would not prevent seemingly endless investigations. Not only would this legislation not do what it claims to do but it would single out our Armed Forces for a privileged protection previously unknown in British law—what the Law Society, in its submission to us today, calls a “quasi-statute of limitations”.
For the first time in the history of British law we would be creating a two-tier justice system in which troops acting for us abroad would be treated differently from other civilians in society. That is serious enough, and alone should make Ministers worry about what they are embarking on, but, additionally, by saying that there is a presumption against prosecution for the most serious of all crimes—namely genocide, crimes against humanity and torture—the Bill undermines some of the most basic international legal standards for which this nation was renowned.
It does not end there. As a result of this quasi-statute of limitations, our troops might, for the first time, have to appear in front of the International Criminal Court. The chief prosecutor of the ICC, Mrs Fatou Bensouda, has said that
“were the effect of applying a statutory presumption be to impede further investigations and prosecution of crimes allegedly committed by British service members … the result would be to render such cases admissible before the ICC”.
The next chief prosecutor of the ICC is a British nominee, Mr Karim Khan, and the irony might be that among his first cases could be a British one.
Like so many of my predecessors as Defence Secretary or NATO Secretary-General, in these positions I had to take weighty decisions about foreign deployments and sending people into harm’s way. These were never easy or lightly thought decisions, and there were many sleepless nights involved. No one should underestimate my feeling when I say that I believe that this Bill is bad for our troops, bad for our British legal system and very bad for our national reputation.
I ask the Minister today to reflect for a moment on a few additional factors. First, there was unanimous criticism from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and my noble friend Lord West, in the last debate that we had. Field Marshal Lord Guthrie, former Conservative Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, and former Conservative Attorney-General Dominic Grieve, have all publicly opposed this measure. What about General Sir Nick Parker, former commander of British land forces, who urged Ministers not to damage the reputation of British Armed Forces overseas? Then there is Bruce Houlder QC, a former Director of Service Prosecutions, who told the Financial Times that the five-year limit would be “an international embarrassment”. On top of all these salvos, just yesterday the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued a statement of real significance, saying that this Bill
“in its current form, risks undermining key human rights obligations that the UK has committed to respect.”
I remind the House of the report of the non-partisan committee of both Houses of the British Parliament, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which considered this Bill and said that
“we have significant concerns that the presumption against prosecution breaches the UK’s legal obligations under international humanitarian law (the law of armed conflict), international human rights law and international criminal law. It risks contravening the UK’s obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Conventions, the Rome Statute and international customary law.”
Those are devastating comments.
Perhaps, in my naive hopefulness, I allowed myself to think that no Government, still less one ostensibly committed to the interests of our Armed Forces, would pursue a measure which would harm them, their reputation and the reputation of our country as a stalwart upholder of the highest international legal standards. That is why I hope that now, at the last minute, the Minister will recognise the forces of reason arrayed against her and, in good military parlance, make a tactical retreat. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am a signatory to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen. I wholeheartedly endorse his comments. He has made the case so well, having spoken with all the advantage and experience of high office in government and NATO, that I can be relatively brief.
In Committee, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, pointed, as the noble Lord, Lord Robertson did, to the broad coalition inside and outside this House which spans from well-experienced military personnel to the United Nations, human rights charities and former Defence Secretaries. Those diverse voices have cogently argued that we should extend the exclusions from the presumption to cover genocide, torture and crimes against humanity. Echoing those concerns when speaking earlier today on a previous amendment, my noble and learned friend Lord Hope of Craighead also set out some of the compelling reasons why the House should support Amendment 3.
I will say a few words about the crime of genocide. Following the overwhelming support which the House gave to the all-party amendments on genocide that I recently moved to the Trade Bill, the House will have noted that many of the same arguments advanced during those debates about strengthening the rule of law also apply to Amendment 3.
Reflect for a moment that the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor has urged the United Kingdom
“to ensure that the exemption clause extends to all crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court”.
Are we seriously going to ignore this admonition? What calculation have we made of the reputational damage and the danger of being accused of being Janus-faced when we call out genocide in places such as Xinjiang, against the Uighurs, or Myanmar, against the Rohingya, but do not hold ourselves to the same stringent test?
Showing contempt or disdain for the ICC is something that we usually associate with authoritarians and dictators. We should be leary of being found in such disreputable company. It also stands in stark contradiction to the vaunted claims in the integrated review that the United Kingdom will be a world leader in promoting British values and a rules-based international order. Global Britain will be measured by its actions and not as a slogan.
The ICC’s chief prosecutor has said that, as this Bill stands, the result would be to
“render such cases admissible before the ICC”,
and that the UK would
“forfeit what it has described as its leading role, by conditioning its duty to investigate and prosecute serious violations of international humanitarian law, crimes against humanity and genocide on a statutory presumption against prosecution after five years.”
As we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, added her voice only yesterday, urging us, as parliamentarians, to heed warnings that, in its current form, the Bill risks undermining key human rights obligations that the United Kingdom has committed itself to respect. She urged us to ensure that the law
“remains entirely unambiguous with regard to accountability for international crimes perpetrated by individuals, no matter when, where or by whom they are committed”.
She went on to pay tribute to our courts and what she called
“the independence and fairness for which they are known around the world”.
She urged us to maintain and strengthen our judicial approach to atrocity crimes—to strengthen, rather than diminish, their standing and reputation.
It disturbs me that there are some within government—not the noble Baroness, I should say—who have become increasingly indifferent to our obligations under the 1948 convention on the crime of genocide and the 1998 Rome statute, which created the International Criminal Court. In their hostility to making these international treaties and obligations effective, an alarming pattern is emerging. We already have the spectre of the Chinese Communist Party using the British Government’s formula that genocide can be determined only by “competent courts”, knowing that no such court is able to do this and that this formulaic response is a guarantee that nothing will be done.
Genocide is the crime above all crimes. I end by urging Ministers to urgently change course to take our responsibilities seriously in holding the perpetrators of the worst crimes imaginable to account. If we set a precedent with the Bill as drafted, I fear that other countries will soon follow. The noble Lord’s amendment deserves our overwhelming support today.
My Lords, I support Amendment 3 and have added my name to it. I have the advantage of having heard the last two contributions to this debate, which is, to some extent, a rehearsal of that which we held in Committee. I will take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, on one point—I have often known him to be hopeful but never naive.
I am tempted to adopt a speech that I made in Committee and sit down, but I will not do that because, like those who have spoken already, I do not understand the intransigence of this Government. I do not recall any noble Lord, other than the noble Baroness herself, making any speech in favour of the Government’s position either at Second Reading or in Committee. How much does it take? How much evidence is necessary to persuade this Government to change their mind?
Of course, we have heard the weight and the quality of the evidence of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, with his extensive experience. We heard, essentially, the forensic destruction of the government case, line by line, by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, in Committee, and we continue to hear the well-known and, one might think, well-informed opposition of Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank and General Sir Nick Parker. Some of these have been mentioned already, but no one has mentioned Elizabeth Wilmshurst —that most courageous opponent of the legality of military action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, who resigned from her position in the Foreign Office—and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who has been both Secretary of State for Defence and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. How is it that, in the face of the mounting volume of evidence against them, the Government insist on holding to this position? I fail to understand.
In Committee, I quoted from the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. At that stage, its approach to this was to provide an executive summary, in the course of which it said that
“murder, torture and other grave war crimes face substantial legal barriers before there can be a prosecution … The Bill undermines our obligations under the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture”.
Again, I ask: what further evidence is required to persuade the Government that they are in the wrong place? Since then, the Bingham centre has produced a more detailed analysis of this proposed legislation. If your Lordships wish to see it reinforce what it has previously said, you will find that on page 16 of that analysis.
What do we know now? The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has made pretty clear a view that might result in a British citizen, a member of the British Armed Forces, possibly being taken to the International Criminal Court—can you imagine it? This country takes pride in our being advocates for the rules-based order in the face of other countries that simply want to ignore it or toss it aside.
I refer to the interests of the United Nations and the official responsible for human rights. Can you imagine the embarrassment of a prominent member of the Security Council asserting the rules-based order, in the teeth of Russian and Chinese unwillingness? I would love to know what the permanent representative of the British mission at the United Nations thinks about the position now being adopted.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. To plagiarise Lewis Carroll, laws mean what we want them to mean. That is certainly the position that was adopted when we came to Part 5 of the Internal Market Bill. What does this do for our standing and influence? How can we make those who breach international law understand the consequences of what they are doing if we are, on the face of it, doing exactly the same ourselves?
I have some sympathy for the noble Baroness because she has gallantly sought to defend the Government’s position. However, I finish by offering her some advice: Oliver Cromwell, in a substantial disagreement with the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, wrote on 3 August 1650—the language is perhaps of its time:
“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”
The language may no longer be appropriate, but the sentiment is surely something to which she should give effect.
I wish to speak briefly in support of Amendment 3 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, and others. I say at the outset that I will not be able to match the eloquence of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, who preceded me and whose views I totally share.
I speak in support of this amendment, as I did in Committee, on the grounds of both principle and pragmatism. The arguments of principle that underpin this amendment are clear. Unamended, the Bill would effectively—de facto if not de jure—open the door to a time limitation on the inquiry into and, where justified, the prosecution of the most heinous of crimes set out in the Rome statute, establishing the International Criminal Court—war crimes and genocide—and those set out in the convention against torture.
I say gently to the Minister that I was a bit disappointed that, in one of her replies to earlier amendments, she suggested that the suggestion that this was a de facto limitation was quite wrong. I question what she said then because if it is not a de facto limitation, what on earth is the point of the Bill? I really do not understand it. I happen to support the main thrust of the Bill.
Neither the Rome statute nor the torture convention provides for any such time limitation on the crimes covered by them, nor in my view should they do so for crimes of that extraordinary seriousness. I suggest that to allow such a limitation into our domestic legislation is not consistent with this Parliament’s ratification of the Rome statute and of our acceptance of the jurisdiction of the ICC. At a time when there is so much evidence worldwide of these sorts of crimes being committed—the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has spoken movingly about them—we should not be playing fast and loose with our own obligations to inquire into them and to prosecute.
The arguments of pragmatism are equally compelling. Unamended, the Bill will actually increase, not decrease, the chances of British service personnel falling within the purview of the ICC. We know that because we have been explicitly warned of it by the court’s prosecutor, who has hitherto relied on our willingness to prosecute crimes under the Rome statute as a sufficient reason not to pursue such cases through the ICC machinery. If that commitment were in any way removed or questioned, the chances of action by the ICC would sharply increase. I was glad to hear the Minister, in responding to earlier amendments, recognise that that risk really exists. It would be a supreme and shameful irony if action by the ICC had to be taken by the recently appointed ICC prosecutor, a British national.
I hope that the House will amend the Bill in the sense proposed to remove from it any limitations of time for crimes set out in the Rome statute and the torture convention and will do so without in any way calling into question the original objective of the Bill: to lift the shadow of vexatious inquiries and prosecutions for lesser offences from our service personnel.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick. I support Amendment 3. As your Lordships may know, I have no legal or military experience and therefore enter this debate today as someone who has listened to and participated in all previous stages of the Bill, and has been powerfully persuaded that my own concerns about the Bill at the outset were rightly felt.
As did the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, I shall quote from the conclusion of the recent executive summary of the briefing from the Bingham Centre:
“The UK has a long and proud reputation of decisive action against war crimes. This Bill weakens that reputation. It makes it harder, not easier to stamp out abuses that our own troops have committed. We do not protect British troops and British values by hiding from the truth or acting with impunity.”
Although it invokes “British values”, surely these are international values, based on the international rule of law.
The UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, quoted previously by my noble friend Lord Robertson, this week urged the UK Government to heed the warnings that the Bill in its current form risks undermining the human rights obligations that the UK has committed itself to respecting. As a former teacher, when people make a commitment to respect something, I expect them to follow through.
The UN press release says:
“In its present form, the proposed legislation raises substantial questions about the UK’s future compliance with its international obligations, particularly under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment … as well as the … Geneva Conventions. These include obligations to prevent, investigate and prosecute acts such as torture and unlawful killing, and make no distinction as to when the offences were committed … ‘The prohibition of torture in international law is both clear and absolute,’ Bachelet said. ‘Article 2 of the Convention against Torture is unequivocal, stating that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”’ The obligations in the Convention to investigate and prosecute such allegations recognize none of the new distinctions that the Bill would now bring into law.”
Surely that is a reason for amendment.
Michelle Bachelet concludes:
“The ability of the UK’s courts to resolve the most serious allegations against military personnel, with the independence and fairness for which they are known around the world, should be maintained and strengthened, rather than be cut back on such problematic grounds”.
I join the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, in asking why the Government cannot be persuaded that they are simply in the wrong place on this? Perhaps the Minister could offer a response to these views so clearly held by the UN and many others and, even at this stage, indicate a change of heart.
My Lords, it must be a rare thing in nature, and in life, for so many doves and hawks to fly together. I agree with every speech that has been made so far in this part of the debate, with perhaps the small caveat that I disagree with the protestations by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that he lacked the eloquence of my noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen—he certainly did not.
I need not repeat the various points particularly regarding the coalition of disapproval in relation to refusing to, at the very least, put war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture in an excepted category. Like others, I cannot understand the Government’s intransigence, especially as they are so well served in relation to the Bill in your Lordships’ House by the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie.
As the Minister spoke gently to me with her usual charm earlier in the debate, I will speak respectfully to her in return. Five years is a very short time indeed in the context of war, covert operations or peacekeeping operations that may be ongoing five years after an alleged atrocity, so in practice this triple lock will make it very difficult to prosecute some of the gravest offences that unfortunately sometimes arise in conflict. As we have said repeatedly during the passage of this legislation, the Government have already conceded the need for certain excluded offences, particularly sexual offences, which have been placed in Schedule 1 to the Bill so do not become subject to the five-year limitation. So it is inexplicable that in the light of everything that has been said to the Government, in the most constructive tone possible, they should not listen to your Lordships’ House and add the offences mentioned in this amendment to that list.
Whenever the Minister has been asked about the distinction between these grave offences and sex offences, she has presented a response from the department about the importance of sending signals and giving confidence in relation to sex offences and overseas operations. We need that comfort and those assurances on these grave offences, not least to avoid the perversity of a situation where, in the context of sexualised torture—sadly, we know this has been perpetrated in conflict situations even by allied forces in recent decades—a veteran or a serving member of personnel could be prosecuted for indecent assault when the allegation is of sexualised torture because the five-year period had passed. That is absolutely perverse.
I urge the Minister yet again to listen to this coalition of opinion from people who do not always agree with me by any stretch of the imagination on human rights matters. Hawks and doves are in complete agreement about this. I urge her to think again. My noble friend Lady Blower may not be a lawyer or a military person, but she is an educator. As she spoke I wondered how we will explain this legislation to our children and grandchildren, let alone to the various hard men of the world cited by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who will be applauding the opportunity that the duplicity of our position on these crimes presents them whether in China, Myanmar or elsewhere.
I can only support these amendments and hope that the distinguished signatories to them will, if the noble Baroness does not concede, test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, once again I am taking the opportunity to express my concerns about this Bill, particularly the five-year window for prosecution and the ability that that will have for the Government to meet their long-standing human rights obligations.
I support Amendment 3. I want to remind everyone that there is already an exclusion in this legislation for rape and other sexual offences. It is there correctly. I suspect that the Government, in putting this Bill together, had their ears bent by women in their own ranks saying, “You can’t possibly put off rape allegations simply because they haven’t been put forward within the five-year window.” There are many reasons why you could not bring a prosecution within that window of five years in relation to sexual offences, which we are now much more willing to recognise as one of the horrors of war. The reasons why people do not come forward and are not able to put their case within short order may be fear or lack of resources. They are often in denial about the horror they have experienced. They may be experiencing coercion or threats or a desire to avoid reliving the past. I am afraid I know all this directly. The reason why evidence is gathered over time to become strong enough to bring cases—it does not happen with speed—is because it is difficult, hard work involving sensitivity to victims. The same is true for victims of torture and other grievous war crimes.
Without the present exemption, the vast majority of rape victims, largely women, would be barred from accessing justice through no fault of their own. Victims of other forms of abuse and violence, such as torture, should be afforded the same opportunity to seek justice on their own terms and in their own time. For example, we are now gathering evidence from places such as Syria—a war that started in 2011. The triple I investigatory processes are gathering that evidence. Prosecutions will happen much further down the line; that is the nature of this.
We have led the world in advocating for the rule of law. I have met the most wonderful lawyers in the ranks of the British Army working for the British Army. They are champions of the rule of law. We should recognise that we have been at the heart of creating the well-established principles and provisions of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. It is a source of pride to me and should be to everybody. We lose our moral authority by going down this road.
I work closely with the United Nations Human Rights Council on matters of law. Senior officials are shocked, deeply alarmed and disappointed to their hearts that the UK of all nations should be retreating from this high ground, so I want to emphasise the implications of this on our standing in the world. The United Kingdom has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations convention against torture. We have heard about the convention in relation to genocide, of which I have spoken many times in this House. They all mandate the absolute prohibition of torture. The absolute nature of the prohibition is at odds with the restrictions in this Bill.
I speak with sadness that we have come to this place. In answering the questions, “What has persuaded the Government? How have they come to be in such a wrong place?”, I think this Bill was put together at a time in relation to matters to do with Iraq, and of course with memories and considerations in relation to Ireland. Courage was given to this Bill by the fact that in the United States of America there was someone like Donald Trump, who had such little respect for the rules-based international order and wanted something somewhat different. He was not interested in international law or international courts. We stand as one of the nations that has been true to those things. We have been one of the few nations that has not experienced fascism, and perhaps that has given us the experience of sticking with law and knowing why it is so important. The value of our commitments becomes meaningless and rings hollow across the international stage by bringing this Bill into being.
The people who experience torture end up deeply traumatised. The families of those who have experienced the horrors of these terrible crimes are traumatised. It takes time to work with them to put together evidence to consider prosecutions. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has also found that a state’s lack of response to an investigation of a complaint is in itself a violation of the prohibition of torture.
We are coming up against a whole body of law that we have been at the heart of creating. What are we thinking about? I wonder whether there are other lawyers in government like Elizabeth, the great lawyer in the Foreign Office who was really alarmed over the Iraq war, who are experiencing the same anxiety that something of serious consequence is being lost here. In its present form, this Bill will not only violate individual procedural human rights and create a culture of impunity for torture and inhumane treatment, but will diminish our capacity to influence in the international human rights sphere, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, described.
I urge this House and the Government to have a rethink because the consequences of this legislation will be far-reaching. Here we are trying to speak in a world that is currently dealing with the horrors perpetrated on the Uighurs and those in Myanmar and the anxieties and fears about what is going on in Hong Kong. We need to have our voice strong in the world right now. Look at Belarus, look at the different places where horrors are taking place; we need to be a voice for values.
My Lords, in speaking to this amendment, I start by saying that I accept a number of the arguments that the Government have advanced against it. I do not think that the Bill is intended to provide UK forces with a blank cheque for torture or genocide; nor do I consider that, as currently worded, it has that legal effect. Investigations into and prosecution of those suspected of such offences should and could be pursued even after the five-year limit, provided that the evidential case is sound. I am in no doubt that those involved in such decisions would consider the facts carefully and conscientiously before coming to a decision one way or the other.
I do not regard the exclusion of sexual offences, and not of torture or genocide, as attributing any hierarchy of seriousness to these crimes. I accept that in claims of torture or genocide, the admitted outcome—the death or wounding of individuals—might reasonably be the consequence of legal military action. Sexual assault, on the other hand, can never be the result of anything but a criminal act. There is a logic behind the distinction. Nor do I accept the argument that the Bill as worded would make our own military personnel more likely to be tortured themselves. During the first Gulf War, I commanded aircrew who were shot down, captured and tortured. The Iraqis did not have, nor did they require, the incentive and cover of this Bill for their actions. I seriously doubt that future captors of UK military personnel would be likely to say to themselves, “Well, I would not ordinarily have tortured these prisoners but, in view of the UK overseas operations Act, I now will.” Regimes that are going to torture captors will; those that are not, will not. I do accept, however, that this Bill might make it harder for us to protest such actions or subsequently to hold the perpetrators to account.
My concern about this part of the Bill has less to do with its legal intent and effect, and more to do with the perceptions it may create and the consequences of such perceptions. I have said that in my view, the Bill does not diminish the seriousness with which we view or treat torture or genocide, but it is clear that many people disagree, and that they will not be persuaded by any words of mine or of the Government. This is important. What people think about such matters is crucial, regardless of whether we regard their interpretation as correct. Reputations, national as well as personal, depend on perception as well as on fact, and the UK’s reputation in the international arena is not something to be taken lightly or to be hazarded without great cause.
One possible consequence of a diminished reputation for an unswerving opposition to torture or genocide could be the increased interest of the International Criminal Court in accusations against UK military personnel—an outcome that I would regard as disastrous. I have heard the arguments against this likelihood, and I am unconvinced by them. I have in the past heard similar arguments advanced about the negligible impact that human rights legislation would have on military operations, only to see those confidently expressed opinions proved dramatically wrong. The Government no doubt feel that they are on firm legal ground with regard to the International Criminal Court, but that view has yet to be tested. Meanwhile, risk must be measured as a combination of probability and consequence. Even if the chance of challenge by the ICC is not large, the severe damage it would cause demands that we do all we can to guard against it.
The risks that I have identified might nevertheless be borne if they were sufficiently outweighed by the advantages that Clause 6 offers, but I do not believe this to be the case. The underlying problems that need to be addressed are the protracted and repeated investigations of speculative and malicious claims, along with the extension of human rights legislation into areas for which it is ill-suited. The Bill, of necessity, comes at these issues obliquely and is therefore likely to be of limited value. I know that the Government believe that the measures proposed on prosecutions will have an impact on the timeliness of investigations. I hope they are right, but the potential benefit is not obviously overwhelming. So, while I support the Government’s aim, and while I understand the logic behind the drafting of Clause 6, I believe that the current wording poses risks that far outweigh the potential benefits. Unless I hear in this debate a far more compelling argument than has so far been made against it, I shall support Amendment 3.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, as well, indeed, as my noble friend Lady Kennedy in the arguments they have put forward. The House has enormous respect for the Minister. I share that respect but it is noticeable that, despite her arguments, she had no support in Committee. I looked at her closing arguments then and found this one:
“In the course of their duties on overseas operations, we expect our service personnel to undertake activities which are intrinsically violent in nature. They fight, they use force”.
That seemed to be the justification for this provision: that force has to be used. I do not believe that force is the same as torture. If there were to be confusion between the two, it would be up to the courts to make a decision. It would not be up to a government Minister to say whether an action was unacceptable or, indeed, appropriate for it to be excused altogether by the provisions of this Bill.
In her closing remarks—she was trying to be helpful—the Minister also said:
“I undertake to consider with care the arguments that have been advanced and to explore if there is any way by which we can assuage your Lordships’ concerns.”—[Official Report, 9 /3/21; cols. 1575-77.]
I am not sure that anything has happened about that commitment. I understand why Ministers make such commitments and why she did so; perhaps she was not comfortable with the Government’s whole argument. However, I am not clear what she has done to assuage our concerns; I do not believe she has.
As has been said before, the reputation of this country is at stake. One thing we surely value very much is our reputation for adhering to the rule of law—for having a proper system for considering it and, indeed, being implacable in our opposition to any breach of it. That reputation is surely worth preserving, yet it is now at stake. We deal all the time with countries that do not observe the rule of law, be it Hong Kong, China in respect of the Uighurs, or Myanmar in respect of the Rohingyas—or, indeed, of their own citizens. There are too many examples of the rule of law being breached; we can ill afford to join the ranks of countries that breach it. We have had severe warnings that we might find our service men and women up before the International Criminal Court—which would be mortifyingly embarrassing and absolutely appalling were it to happen.
I am a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which made a detailed assessment of the Bill and its various provisions and produced a report. At paragraphs 63 and 64, the report says that
“we have significant concerns that the presumption against prosecution”
runs the risk of contravening
“the UK’s legal obligations under international humanitarian law (the law of armed conflict)”
“international human rights law ... It risks contravening the UK’s obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Conventions, the Rome Statute and international customary law.”
The report goes on to say:
“At a minimum, the presumption against prosecution should be amended so that it does not apply to torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.”
Nothing could be clearer than that.
We have also heard quoted today Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She said:
“No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
I can think of no clearer comments than those I have quoted. I fully support this amendment.
My Lords, we have heard some very distinguished speeches this afternoon and the passionate speech from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, destroyed any case that the Government might have. As an old soldier—a national serviceman—and a Defence Minister many years ago, I yield to no one in my concern to protect the armed services from vexatious investigations and prosecutions. As Attorney-General, I played a very small part in encouraging the late Robin Cook’s successful advocacy for the setting up of the International Criminal Court. As an active member some years ago, I advocated successfully at the IPA conference in Cape Town for the international recognition by all nations of the offence of torture. I believe I was kicking at an open door when the paper that I had prepared was accepted. All civilised countries now accept that the offence of torture is unique; likewise, of course, genocide.
My noble friend Lord Robertson comprehensively and eloquently moved the amendment. The Bill proposes a presumption against prosecution of torture and other grave crimes after five years, except in exceptional circumstances. As my noble friend states, this risks the creation of de facto immunity after that time. That is the bottom line. Unfortunately, the result is that our troops risk being open to prosecution by the International Criminal Court. The effect of the Rome statute is that the court can prosecute where there is no robust domestic civil process. Perhaps the Minister will say specifically what the danger is of our troops being brought before the International Criminal Court?
As a former law officer, I had the task of advising Her Majesty’s Government on international law; I cannot see how we can avoid process before the International Criminal Court. May I make a practical suggestion to the Minister? Before Third Reading, will she consult the law officers and get their views—if they have not given them already, as I suspect they may have—on the point raised by so many Members of this House, without opposition, that we are in danger of allowing our troops to be hauled before the International Criminal Court?
I strongly support the exclusion of the most serious crimes, such as torture, war crimes and genocide, from the immunity proposals. Put simply, in international law—I can only emphasise this—there is no expiry date for the prosecution of torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity. I am grateful to my noble friend for moving this amendment. The bottom line is that there is no expiry date for the prosecution of these offences. It may not have been the intention, but the unfortunate consequence is that our troops might find themselves before the International Criminal Court.
My Lords, this amendment has had no opposition. I thought very briefly that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, was perhaps going to speak against it because he raised concerns about the nature of some aspects of what has been said. The Minister has heard nobody from her own Benches, or rebel Labour, Liberal Democrat or Cross-Bench Peers, speaking against the amendment. Nobody has given any reason why this amendment should not be supported. That has been true at virtually every stage. The only noble Lords who perhaps could have given the Minister some succour at an earlier stage, at Second Reading, were the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, and, in particular, the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, who listened very carefully to what the Minister said. However, even the noble Lord, Lord King, said that maybe the Government needed to think again about torture and genocide.
If there is a presumption that sexual violence and exploitation should be left out of Part 1 of the Bill, what possible justification can the Government have to leave out genocide, torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity? As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, the Minister, at previous stages of the Bill but also in her written response to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, has said that the Government would never ask our Armed Forces to perpetrate crimes of sexual violence or sexual exploitation. Good—that is obviously what we want to hear. However, the Minister does not say the same thing about war crimes and torture. She merely says that the Government take them very seriously. While, clearly, the Bill does not make it impossible that prosecutions could be brought against allegations of torture, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, surely the logic of the Minister’s response to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee is that the Government, if not endorsing or requesting that people perpetrate torture and war crimes, somehow do not view them in the same way.
Occasionally on these Benches we have very different views from the Minister. We know that we are never going to change the Minister’s mind; nevertheless, we listen and we understand where the Government are coming from. Perhaps the Government have a point of principle. On this occasion, it is almost incomprehensible what the Government’s point of principle can be. If somebody has committed torture or a war crime, that needs to be investigated and prosecuted. The fact that the Government merely take it very seriously simply is not good enough. This amendment rights a complete defect in the Bill. We support the amendment and I believe that many noble Lords from all sides of the Chamber support it.
I ask whether the Minister did go away and think carefully after Committee. As several noble Lords have said, we respect the Minister but we have not yet heard any sense of reflection from the Government. We have not had a scintilla of a change. We have heard nothing that makes anybody feel that the Government are likely to change their mind. If the Government cannot find a way of changing their mind, it is essential that this House asks the other place to think again.
My Lords, there is almost universal support in this House for ensuring that torture, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity are excluded from the presumption. It is clear what the ICC thinks: if we do not do so, as has been quoted many times, the UK would
“forfeit what it has described as its leading role, by conditioning its duty to investigate and prosecute serious violations of international humanitarian law, crimes against humanity and genocide.”
That is why there is such strong support for Amendment 3 and, importantly, for its approach to protect these offences so that they cannot be removed by statutory instrument at a later date. I hope that the Minister has listened closely to the powerful debate and the broad coalition that spans military figures and human rights experts, and will promise that government amendments will come forward at Third Reading. Otherwise, we support my noble friend Lord Robertson in his important amendment and urge him to divide the House.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and all other noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions. We heard some exceedingly powerful speeches on these issues in Committee, and they were echoed today. I recognise the understandable concern and emotion that accompany the arguments that have been adduced. This is an extremely important matter, perhaps the most passionately debated part of the whole Bill, and I do not underestimate the scale of my task to address the arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and his supporters, but it is my job to try. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, made a telling point about perception, and it is my job to try to address that issue as well.
I reassure the House that the Government have given considerable and careful consideration to the offences that are excluded from the measures in Part 1. The intent of the Bill, as drafted, ensures that the Part 1 measures will apply to as wide a range of offences as possible, in order to provide that necessary reassurance to our service personnel that the operational context will be taken into account, in so far as it reduces a person’s culpability, in the circumstances of allegations of criminal offences on historical overseas operations. The broad objective of the Bill is to support our Armed Forces personnel, and I accept that that has been recognised across the Chamber. The divergence of opinion is on how we can deliver that reassurance.
In considering the provisions of the Bill, the Government gave careful thought to the physical environment of an overseas operation. As noble Lords who have served on such operations will know, the range of activity is diverse and the threat of danger ever present. It is a lethal environment in which our Armed Forces are called upon to deal with unimaginably challenging situations, and it is predictable that, arising from such activity, allegations of wrongdoing may be made. The one type of activity which can never have any place in such an operation is the commission of a sexual offence, so I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that is why sexual offences are excluded from the Bill. She referred to that as a presumption: it is not a presumption—it is an explicit exclusion.
Some have argued that such an exclusion means that the Government are relegating other crimes to a lower classification of gravity. We are not. We are acknowledging that in an overseas conflict, because of the inherent nature of such activity, there is a predictability about allegations being made that crimes have been committed. The Government are neither defining nor categorising what these crimes may be, we are merely creating a clearer framework and structure as to how such allegations are to be handled. It goes without saying that of course we shall take other offences, such as war crimes and torture, extremely seriously. I repeat that the Government’s decision to exclude sexual offences only, as I set out in detail in Committee, does not mean that we will not continue to view with the utmost gravity other offences such as war crimes and torture.
Nor will the Bill somehow provide an excuse for poor behaviour or enable impunity for very serious crimes allegedly committed by our Armed Forces personnel. I am very grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, for his comments in that respect and I am pleased that many noble Lords recognise that the presumption against prosecution does not amount to either an amnesty or a statute of limitations, nor the creation of a de facto immunity. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that a bar on prosecution in gremio of the Bill would be an amnesty—it would be a statute of limitations and a de facto immunity— but there is no such provision in the Bill. I remind noble Lords that the severity of an alleged offence will continue to be an extremely important factor for a prosecutor in determining whether to prosecute. We should remember that the presumption is, of course, rebuttable.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Kennedy, referred to the five-year period. I just observe that the period was informed by the response to the consultation carried out on the Bill. Interestingly, the period of five years was visited at an earlier stage, in Committee, and has not been revisited.
I have listened to the very real concerns expressed by many in this House, including references to many third parties holding similar views, that the Bill undermines the United Kingdom’s continuing commitment to, and damages our reputation for, upholding international humanitarian and human rights law, including the United Nations Convention against Torture. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that I seek to assuage these concerns and to reassure once more on this point: the United Kingdom does not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture for any purpose, and we remain committed to maintaining our leading role in the promotion and protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Our Armed Forces will continue to operate under international law, including, of course, the Geneva conventions, and we will continue to expect that others will do the same.
I would like to explain further why the Government’s view is that Amendment 3 should be resisted. First and foremost, we are concerned that it would undermine the reassurance that we are seeking to give to our service personnel and veterans by excluding a considerable list of offences from the application of the measures in Part 1. The Bill does not prevent such offences being investigated nor prosecuted. Indeed, in relation to prosecution, the gravity of the crime will be a cogent factor. It is perhaps also worth adding that, in the interests of clarity and to preserve the structure of the Bill as currently drafted, we believe that all the excluded offences should be listed in the same place in the Bill, and that the appropriate place is Schedule 1, instead of being spread across the Bill, as the noble Lord’s amendment would provide.
I have endeavoured to present the Government’s position and, in these circumstances, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, to consider withdrawing his amendment.
My Lords, I do not have to repeat the respect that the House has for the Minister, but she does not speak with any great enthusiasm. That is not surprising because her case is so weak that enthusiasm and passion certainly cannot be part of her argument. I do not want to take up a lot of the time of the House at this stage, but let me quote what General Sir Graeme Lamb, the former director of Special Forces in the British Army, said in the weighty Policy Exchange document that was critical of this Bill. He said
“good intentions are not enough as the Bill as it stands may fail to protect our troops adequately … it does nothing to address the problem of repeat investigations.”
Then there was Bruce Houlder, the former Director of Service Prosecutions whom I quoted in my original speech, who told the Financial Times that the five-year limit would be an “international embarrassment”. I did not quote what he added, which was that
“the idea that we then treat torture and other grave crimes including homicide as excusable, and legislate in effect to make it difficult in the extreme to prosecute after five years, is really outrageous.”
The Minister has not quoted anybody in support of her contention that what the Government are saying is reasonable. I and other noble Lords and noble and gallant Lords have quoted endless examples of those who say that what is happening here today in this Bill is outrageous. Even today’s Daily Mail editorial condemns the Government for apparently legitimising torture in the way that the Bill does.
In light of the fact that the Minister has given no defence whatever, I insist that we test of the will of the House on this amendment.
Amendment 4 not moved.
Clause 7: General interpretation etc
Amendment 5 not moved.
6: After Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—
“Investigation of allegations related to overseas operations
(1) In deciding whether to commence criminal proceedings for allegations against a member of Her Majesty’s Forces arising out of overseas operations, the relevant prosecutor must take into account whether the investigation has been timely and comprehensively conducted.(2) Where an investigator of allegations arising out of overseas operations is satisfied that there is sufficient evidence of criminal conduct to continue the investigation, the investigator must within 21 days refer the investigation to the Service Prosecuting Authority with any initial findings and accompanying case papers.(3) An investigation may not proceed after the period of 6 months beginning with the day on which the allegation was first reported without the reference required in subsection (2). (4) On receiving a referral under subsection (2), the Service Prosecuting Authority must either—(a) order the investigation to cease if it considers it unlikely that charges will be brought, or(b) give appropriate advice and directions to the investigator about avenues of inquiry to pursue and not pursue, including—(i) possible defendants to consider,(ii) possible explanations to consider for the circumstances giving rise to the investigation, and(iii) overseas inquiries and seeking the help of overseas jurisdictions.(5) Where the investigation proceeds, the Service Prosecuting Authority must monitor and review its progress at intervals of three months and must on each review make a decision in the terms set out in subsection (4).(6) On the conclusion of the investigation, the investigator must send a final report with accompanying case papers to the Service Prosecuting Authority for the consideration of criminal proceedings.(7) After receipt of the final report, the facts and circumstances of the allegations may not be further investigated or reinvestigated without the direction of the Director of Service Prosecutions acting on the ground that there is new compelling evidence or information which might—(a) materially affect the previous decision, and(b) lead to a charge being made.(8) The Judge Advocate General may give Practice Directions as he or she deems appropriate for the investigation of allegations arising out of overseas operations.(9) For the purposes of this section—“investigator” means a member of the service police or a civil police force;“case papers” includes summaries of interviews or other accounts given by the suspect, previous convictions and disciplinary record, available witness statements, scenes of crime photographs, CCTV recordings, medical and forensic science reports.”
My Lords, the Minister’s response to Amendment 6—on the necessity of monitoring investigations to ensure that they are timely, effective and not continuously repeated—was to defend the status quo when the current system has manifestly not prevented delays, shoddy investigations and reinvestigations casting a shadow over serving members of the Armed Forces and veterans. I beg leave to test the opinion of the House.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 7. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
Clause 8: Restrictions on time limits to bring actions: England and Wales
7: Clause 8, leave out Clause 8
My Lords, in speaking to these amendments, my first point is that legitimate claims for misconduct by British troops involved in overseas operations are a fact that has to be faced, however unpalatable that is. According to a Written Answer given to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, on 15 June last year,
“in excess of 1,330 claims”
have been brought against the MoD since 2003, and they have been settled at a cost of some £32 million. Nobody suggests that these were not proper claims. Indeed, the noble Baroness said:
“The claims received focus predominately on alleged unlawful detention but many incorporate allegations of mistreatment at the hands of British military personnel.”
These claims by foreign nationals are not for negligence, as is the case with claims by British soldiers against the MoD. The House should not assume, because a discredited solicitor who has been removed from the role brought a number of claims that were successfully struck out under our legal system as vexatious, that every claim is tainted. There may be some who believe that our courts should not be open to civilians of a different colour or creed complaining of the misconduct of our military, but that is not a majority view.
Secondly, it must be appreciated that the normal limitation period for damages for personal injury is three years. For claims for damages under the Human Rights Act, for unlawful detention, for example, it is for one year. The consent of a judge must be obtained to disapply the limitation period for the commencement of actions, and based on the principle that it is equitable to both parties to disapply the time limit. In exercising his discretion, the judge has to take into account all the circumstances of the case. Particular factors are set out in Section 33(3) of the Limitation Act, the second of which is:
“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 allowed by section 11 … or … section 12”
of that Act. The length of the delay, the reasons for it, and the strength and importance of the case to both sides are involved in the judge’s exercise of his discretion.
Clause 8 of this Bill, headed “Restrictions on time limits to bring actions: England and Wales”, alters the 1980 Act in its provisions to restrict the court’s discretion to disapply time limits for actions in respect of personal injuries or death that related to overseas operations of the Armed Forces. It will be noted that no distinction is made between actions brought by citizens of the country in which the overseas operations are taking place—foreign nationals—and actions by our own military personnel in that country for damages for, for example, negligence. It follows that every soldier injured on Salisbury Plain has greater rights to commence actions for damages for negligence than soldiers injured in overseas operations in similar circumstances. I have failed to discover any principle to justify this discrimination. This will be addressed further on Amendment 13.
Other provisions in Schedules 2 and 3, and in Clause 11 on human rights actions, provide that, in considering whether to disapply the ordinary limitation period of three years or one year, the court is to have particular regard not only to the factors of delay to which I have referred, but specifically to the ability of members of Her Majesty’s forces who remember relevant events fully or accurately or who have recorded or retained records of such events.
They must also have regard to the impact of the proceedings on the mental health of a witness or potential witness who is a member of Her Majesty’s forces. These are extraordinary provisions that require the court to consider extending or disapplying the ordinary time limits to weigh in the balance the legitimate claim of a victim injured by
“mistreatment at the hands of British military personnel”—
to use the words of the noble Baroness in the Question I referred to—against the difficulties of a military person in remembering or recording the events, or the possible effect on his mental health in giving evidence, when he might be the person who had inflicted the complained-of mistreatment on the claimant in the first place. On the one hand, there are injuries to the plaintiff or claimant; on the other, the effect on the memory or mental health of the person who inflicted the injuries.
I remember attending the Montgomeryshire assizes in Welshpool in my youth, when behind the judge’s chair there was a three-foot-high statuette of the figure of Justice, blindfolded, of course, and holding the scales in her hand—except that they were tipped down permanently to one side. That is what these provisions are like.
I do not propose to seek a vote on these two amendments in my name. Had I wished to do so, I would have wished to include “Leave out Clause 11,” which deals with the Human Rights Act claim. My name is attached to the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, but there are specific inquiries I wish to make to clarify what is not clear in these clauses.
What is the meaning of the “relevant date” or “date of knowledge” from which the six-year long-stop starts to run? How is that date impacted by delayed knowledge of the manifestation of harm resulting from the act which is the subject of the claim—somebody contracting an illness much later? What is the effect of delayed knowledge of the claimant’s ability to bring a claim before the UK courts at all? What happens if the six-year period is interrupted by events totally outside the control of the claimant—for example, sickness, recovery from wounds or inability to secure legal advice?
The Government must face the impression given by these sections of the Bill that they are publicly in denial of any misconduct on the part of British troops while settling hundreds of meritorious claims behind the scenes in secret, selecting a category of cases simply on the basis that they arise out of overseas operations and applying to this category a unique bar—a brick wall—where the discretion of the court can no longer be exercised. However just and equitable it would be, it does nothing for the reputation of this country, for the rule of law or for justice. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendments 7 and 8 are, in effect, wrecking amendments, while Amendment 13 seeks to distinguish the position of service personnel and other potential claimants. I expressed the view in Committee that I was not convinced that the provisions in Part 2 would make all that much practical difference. The primary limitation period for personal injuries is three years, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, has just pointed out, except in so-called delayed date of knowledge cases, as provided by Sections 11 and 14 of the Limitation Act 1980. There is a discretion to disapply the limitation period under Section 33 of the 1980 Act. As he also pointed out, claims under the Human Rights Act have to be brought within one year, with a discretion to extend in rather limited circumstances.
My experience of personal injury claims as a barrister is that courts need considerable persuasion before they extend the three-year period and that the burden rests on a claimant to persuade a court that that primary limitation period should not apply. Limitation periods exist to reflect the difficult balance that has to be struck between allowing everyone to put a line under actual or potential claims and the fact that some claimants will have good reason for delay.
The provisions in Part 2 provide a long-stop, subject to a delayed date of knowledge provision. It seems that claims arising out of overseas operations present particular difficulties for all those involved, and I respectfully differ from the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, about Salisbury Plain, particularly in overseas operations where the theatre of operations has moved on or changed its location and it may be extremely difficult to investigate, on either side, the basis of any such claim.
As I said, the provisions are not likely to have much practical effect, but they will nevertheless have some indirect effect in encouraging appropriate claims to be brought with as much speed as is practical. They will also provide a degree of reassurance to our service personnel that a time will come when they will be involved in one way or another in so-called late claims. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, referred to some uncertainty over what the date of knowledge might be which would defer claims. Subject to what the Minister says, I understand it to be concerned with cases where, for example, there is latent disease that could not be reasonably known about by a claimant at the time; for example, somebody who sustains mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos dust or who has some other illness or injury that becomes manifest only some years after the event in question.
I am not attracted to Amendment 13 either. In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, suggested that I was concerned only with claims brought by the military and not with those brought by the non-military or civilians in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan. That was not in fact what I said or thought. It is therefore something of an irony that this amendment would make that very distinction. I am unaware of any such provision in any other area of the law of limitation of actions—that is, a provision that distinguishes between classes of claimant. There are of course provisions distinguishing the position of a claimant who has not attained his or her majority or who lacks mental capacity. However, it would set a most unfortunate precedent somehow to elevate a particular claimant to have a special status.
The provisions in Part 2 ought to apply in precisely the same way across the board to whomsoever is involved in claims arising out of overseas operations and provide equal protection for all of them. This amendment is discriminatory and should not be included in the Bill. Surely our service personnel want to be treated fairly, rather than to be given some special privileged litigation status. I will listen with great interest to what the noble and gallant Lords who are to follow in this debate have to say about the matter, but for the moment I am unconvinced that any of these amendments should be made to the Bill.
My Lords, I will add just a few words to what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said in support of Amendment 13. The provisions to which it is addressed which are of particular interest to me are in Schedule 3, which seeks to amend the legislation that applies in Scotland to the same extent to that in Schedules 2 and 4, which apply to the other jurisdictions. The crucial point is the imposition—for such it is—of an absolute prescription of six years.
As we know, the three-year limitation period that applies at present is accompanied by protections that enable the court to extend the limitation period if it is justified by the circumstances—the date of knowledge exception. It seems that the Bill applies a hard-edged cut-off that makes no allowance whatever for extenuating circumstances. I could understand it if this proposal had been accompanied by a carefully conducted research programme into how the three-year limitation has worked in practice over the years, identifying on how many occasions the period has been extended for more than three years, and why and at what point the extensions have been sought and justified. We are, of course, in this case, and indeed throughout the Bill, dealing with the consequences of operations that have been conducted overseas, maybe under very difficult circumstances. Gathering together enough information to determine whether a claim would be justified, let alone to bring together all the information needed to justify bringing the claim before the court out of time, may take much more time and effort than is needed in the more benign domestic cases. That is the reason for seeking the discrimination to which the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, referred.
Without this amendment, the proposal in the Bill is a bit of a hostage to fortune. We simply do not know what its effect would be—maybe not very great, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, said, but if it is there, it would seem to be unfair. I cannot see anything wrong in bringing out a class of individuals to whom this amendment is directed. In principle, what is wrong with identifying a particular class of claimants, particularly where they can be seen to be, in particular situations, disadvantaged, as we are contemplating in this Bill? For these general reasons, I am inclined to support Amendment 13.
My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead. I too support the amendments. In particular, I support wholeheartedly Amendments 7 and 8, which, if accepted, would obviate the need for Amendment 13. I differ from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, in relation to Amendment 13, which in my view does not go far enough.
Clauses 8 and 9 would have the effect of preventing a number—a small number, I accept—of meritorious civil actions being brought by service personnel, or their estates and dependants, against the Ministry of Defence, where the latter has negligently caused their injury or death. I see no justification for imposing harsher limitation provisions for actions in respect of personal injuries or death that relate to overseas operations of the Armed Forces than in relation to other civil claims. The factual matrix in which a claim arises will always be a crucial factor in the determination of the court’s discretion to allow late claims. The imposition of the time bar in Clauses 8 to10 will undermine the confidence of military personnel who might be injured or die on overseas operations. They knowingly and bravely take the risk of injury or death in enemy action, but they do not consent to risks created by the negligence of the Ministry of Defence, as in the case of my former client, the mother of a soldier killed by a high-explosive shell fired at his tank from another British tank, which had mistaken it for the enemy. After interminable investigations, belated disclosure of documents and the work of our expert, the case was made that the Ministry of Defence was at fault for a long-standing failure to fit identification equipment and for a consistent failure to train tank commanders properly in identification.
The Ministry of Defence eventually settled the case with a substantial payment but no admission of liability. It took years. Had the proposed regime of Clauses 8 to 10 been in place, my client’s action might never have got off the ground. I feel I owe it to those who might in the future be in the sad position of my former client, having lost a son or daughter, to resist the inclusion of these clauses.
What can be the justification for imposing a bar on such claimants, a bar which does not apply to any other claimants other than in relation to members of the Armed Forces who suffer personal injury or death on overseas operations? The ostensible purpose is to bar vexatious claims but, with respect, that is nonsense. Bill or no Bill, there will always be unmeritorious claims. The courts have a powerful armoury of mechanisms for throwing them out. They do not need the blunt instrument of Clauses 8 to 10. Although those clauses would time bar some vexatious claims, they would equally time bar meritorious claims. That is not forgivable. It is no answer to say that there would be few of the latter. There should be none.
In any event, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, pointed out, all claims are subject to the Limitation Act, which imposes strict time limits on them. These may only be exceeded by express permission of the court—an exercise of the court’s discretion which is subject to specified and comprehensive conditions under that Act.
The imposition of the time bar in Clauses 8 to 10 is likely to undermine the confidence of military personnel who might be injured or die on overseas operations. They should not be subject to hurdles to which other claimants are not.
I agree with the sentiment of Amendment 13, which seeks to exempt service personnel from the time bar of Clauses 8 to 10. However, its shortfall is that it fails to bring the estate and dependants of such personnel within the exemption, thus allowing the time bar to apply to those in the position of my former client. Amendments 7 and 8 are therefore preferable. I had hoped that those who tabled them would have pressed them to a Division.
My Lords, Amendment 13 is about the six-year time limit imposed by the Bill on those who have been engaged on overseas operations, and the ability of such servicepeople to bring any grievances against the MoD after that time. As we have already heard, this would have the perverse effect of limiting the rights of individual service personnel by restricting their access to legal remedies for harms caused by their employers. This would not apply to their counterparts not engaged on overseas operations.
In Committee, the Minister’s comment that, based on past statistics, this might apply only in a very small number of instances was specious. The Armed Forces are all of one company and thus should all be treated the same. Even if only one person were to be affected, he or she should not be discriminated against. It cannot be just for such situations to be allowed, so I support Amendment 13.
My Lords, I had intended to involve myself deeply in the passage of this important Bill through your Lordships’ House, although I hesitate to speak on matters about which I am much less qualified to pronounce than the learned and gallant noble Lords who have made such a great contribution to our debates on the Bill. I have found it difficult to keep up with and to remain fully involved in this Bill as well as in the Financial Services Bill. For most of my working life, I have been a full-time banker; on the other hand, my military experience is limited. I was a TA soldier for 10 years and, more recently, have been honoured to act as an honorary air commodore in the Royal Auxiliary Air Force.
I very much welcome the Government’s decision to introduce the Bill and to deliver on our manifesto commitment to end vexatious legal claims. I also understand and agree with the Government’s intention in Part 2 to ensure that claims are brought sooner. This should mean that service personnel and veterans will not be subjected to criminal investigations that may be triggered by civil claims. I therefore cannot support Amendments 7 and 8 in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, which have the effect of wrecking this part of the Bill in its entirety.
However, I am impressed by arguments by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, that the courts should continue to be allowed to hear personal injury claims against the Crown even after the six-year time limit has expired. I know enough about the culture within the Armed Forces—a major reason for the high regard in which they are held—to agree that it may also create situations where someone may be told that he cannot make a claim, when actually he can, but he will still believe and accept that he cannot. I am therefore sympathetic to the purpose of Amendment 13 but look forward to hearing my noble friend the Minister’s response to the powerful arguments put forward in its support.
My Lords, I support these amendments, with a very strong preference for Amendments 7 and 8, although I understand that they will not be pressed; half a loaf is better than no bread. It is clear to me that a combination of rules and discretion is what the law is. This is the protection against arbitrary action, and I have heard no compelling argument whatever at any point in the proceedings relating to this legislation for limiting the discretion of the courts completely, particularly in the light of the sorts of cases described by my noble friend Lord Hendy.
However, I was interested in the newly expressed concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, about discrimination; his view of equal treatment under the law is novel to me. He seems to be concerned about discrimination in relation to a Bill, which he supports, that is inherently discriminatory. He is concerned about giving extra protection to a particular class of claimant—namely, veterans and personnel, who are supposed to be protected by this legislation. But he is not concerned, it would seem, about giving special protection to a class of defendants—the MoD, the Executive—which is the initiator of the legislation as well as the civil defendant. He is not concerned about giving special protection and limitations to criminal defendants in the military, but he is concerned to give the protection offered by Amendment 13 when it is not being offered to overseas civilians, yet he does not support Amendments 7 and 8. This is not levelling up; it is levelling down.
As I say, I would very much prefer Amendments 7 and 8 to be pressed, but in their absence I will support Amendment 13. The Government brought forward this legislation with a promise to give protection to service personnel and veterans but, instead, if they do not go along with at least Amendment 13, it will protect the Exchequer—the Ministry of Defence—from the very people that it claims to protect.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 13, to which I have attached my name. Its purpose is to ensure that service personnel are not debarred by time from pursuing claims against the Government for harms suffered on overseas operations. It seems strange to me that a Bill with the avowed purpose of providing government reassurance to service personnel seems intent on preventing those very personnel from seeking redress from that same Government. This may not be the intention, but it is one of the potential consequences of the Bill as it is currently worded.
In responding to a similar amendment in Committee, the noble and learned Lord the Advocate-General for Scotland, argued against it because it would have very limited effect. At Second Reading, the Government said that some 94% of service personnel and veterans who brought claims relating to events in Iraq and Afghanistan had done so within six years. He later confirmed that this figure included those who had brought a claim within six years of the date of knowledge. My response is to repeat the question that I posed on that occasion, and which was never answered: are we to assume then that, had the proposed timescale been in effect, the Government believe that it would have been acceptable for the other 6% to lose the opportunity to pursue their cases?
The Government also say that the vast majority of claims by service personnel relate to events in the UK, not to overseas operations. I really fail to see the relevance of this point. To argue that only a small number of service personnel would suffer injustice does not seem to me a respectable position for a Government to take at any time, let alone in a Bill that is supposed to provide support and reassurance to those people.
The noble and learned Lord the Advocate-General for Scotland also said in Committee that one of the purposes of Part 2 was to introduce a longstop that would encourage the earlier laying and investigation of civil claims and any associated criminal investigations. This seems remarkably similar to the aim of Part 1. There is, however, a very different approach to the matter of timescales. Part 1 does not introduce a significant legal watershed. Complaints can still be brought to prosecution subject to certain tests that ought to be applied with or without the Bill. The time limit placed on complaints brought by service personnel or veterans is of a very different character. It is not a high bar: it is an impassable wall.
I accept that Part 1 deals with criminal prosecutions and that Part 2 is concerned with civil claims, and that this might therefore give rise to different rules. It seems strange, however, that in a Bill that is supposed to support our Armed Forces, their civil claims are subject to more stringent rules than the complaints brought by others against them. Perhaps the major objection that the Advocate-General advanced against an amendment of this nature, however, was that it would treat service personnel and veterans as a separate class from others. Just so—is this not exactly what the Bill overall seeks to do? If such a distinction is insupportable in this part of the Bill, why not in the rest of it? Part 1 seems to offer no particular protection to MoD civilians employed on operations, even though they could conceivably be accused of criminal offences, yet that is not regarded as a flaw in the Bill.
There is a widespread impression that the MoD is using the Bill to protect itself from claims, rather than—or, at least, in addition to—protecting service personnel and veterans. The easiest way for the Government to correct this—as they would see it—misleading impression is surely to accept Amendment 13.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup. Not for the first time, I found his contribution compelling and I hope the Minister did as well.
During the passage of this legislation, it has become clear that the application of this six-year unextendable deadline for claims by members of our own Armed Forces— principally against the MoD—is probably an unintended consequence. In Committee, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart of Dirleton, the Advocate-General for Scotland, said:
“The purpose of the limitation longstops is not to stop service personnel from bringing claims”.
He went on to say that
“excluding claims from service personnel from these measures is likely to be incompatible with our obligations under the ECHR. That is because there would be an unjustifiable difference in treatment between different categories of claimants—for example, between service personnel and the Ministry of Defence civilian personnel who deploy alongside them on overseas operations … There is therefore no objective or functional reason why claims from service personnel and veterans should be excluded from the longstops”.—[Official Report, 9/3/21; col. 1596.]
A plain reading of that explanation is that the Government are compelled by obligations under the ECHR to apply these longstops to all personnel in respect of claims that arise from their deployment on overseas operations. It is that argument that I wish to test.
On 11 March, in the debate on Amendment 32 in my name—supported by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton of Richmond, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones—I raised the issue of discrimination in Part 1 between those who are deployed on overseas operations but operate remotely, such as UAV pilots, and those who are deployed on overseas operations and operate physically in the theatre. The purpose of the amendment was to explore whether the consequences of the stated intention of the integrated review—that new technology be integral to the future of UK defence—has been fully thought through in this legislation, and whether the discrimination between those operating remotely and those deployed in the theatre is sustainable in the light of the implications of this technology being used by service personnel deployed in overseas operations.
In response to the debate on that amendment and in a subsequent letter of 25 March, the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, sought to assure me and others that the Bill was future-proofed and that the full implications of new technology and its deployment had been thought through. I am far from convinced that that is the case and will continue to press the Government for a comprehensive review of these issues.
As well as writing, the noble Baroness graciously offered and arranged for me a virtual meeting with her and senior officials to discuss many of the complex issues raised in the debate and referred to in her letter. That discussion is ongoing. I await a further letter of clarification, and I have been offered and have accepted a second detailed briefing with senior officials. It is likely that we will return to this in the Armed Forces Bill.
However, relevant to this debate, the letter of 25 March includes the following:
“When we were developing the policy intent for the Bill, we considered very carefully those flying UAVs in an overseas operation but from within the UK. We determined that, although UK-based UAV pilots would be considered to be part of an overseas operation, it could not be said that they would be at risk of personal attack or violence (or face the threat of attack or violence), as would be the case for an individual deployed in the theatre of operations. Nor would the difficulties of recording decisions and retaining evidence be the same as when deployed within the theatre of an overseas operation. We therefore determined that personnel in these roles should not be within the scope of this Bill. It is important to recognise that this decision is not limited only to UAV pilots. There may be others, in future … to whom these measures would equally not apply … When this technology is used by service personnel deployed on an overseas operation, they will be covered by the Bill, but it is important to make a distinction between those that are deployed in a high threat environment, and those that aren’t, due to the very different operating conditions.”
“We therefore determined that personnel in these roles should not be within the scope of this Bill … this decision is not limited only to UAV pilots … There may be”—
“others, in future, who participate in an overseas operation remotely … to whom these measures would equally not apply.”
This explanation makes it clear that, in respect of all parts of the Bill, the Government have decided that there will be a difference in treatment between different categories of claimants; for example, between different categories of service personnel deployed on the same overseas operations—that is, those who are in the theatre and those who are not. My question is simply: how is this difference in treatment justifiable, and how is it compatible with our obligations under the ECHR if it is not compatible when expressed as in Amendment 13?
My Lords, in essence, Amendment 13 in the names of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer, the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Stirrup and Lord Boyce, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, would reintroduce the normal approach to limitation: if a claim is not brought within 12 months —or three years if it is a personal injuries claim—under the Human Rights Act, the court can extend indefinitely if it is just and equitable to do so. This will allow personnel to bring claims after the Government’s proposed six-year longstop.
While the Minister argues that the longstop will apply only to a small number of personnel, I was struck by the comment from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup—repeated again today—that
“to argue that only a small number of service personnel would suffer injustice does not seem a respectable position for a Government to take at any time”.—[Official Report, 9/3/21; col. 1594.]
We wholeheartedly agree with him. We have to correct this unfairness and avoid a breach of the Armed Forces covenant, as suggested by the Royal British Legion. While a soldier injured through negligence by a piece of equipment on Salisbury Plain can bring a claim under normal rules, it is wrong that different rules apply for the same act of negligence if it occurs in an overseas operation.
I also want to highlight a concerning Answer I have received to a Parliamentary Question. When asked about government investigations against civil claims, the Minister revealed that the MoD is launching three times more investigations against personnel who pursue civil claims than it did five years ago. These examine
“the true extent of a claimant’s alleged injuries”
“the veracity of a claim”.
This Answer, along with the six-year limit in this Bill, indicates that government is increasingly more suspicious of civil claims from troops against the MoD. We should not provide additional limitational hurdles in respect of military personnel bringing claims against the MoD. Therefore, the Bill clearly needs to be amended. When Amendment 13 is called, I intend to seek the opinion of the House.
My Lords, Amendments 7 and 8 seek to remove Clauses 8 and 9 from the Bill. Clause 8, in conjunction with Schedule 2, introduces new factors to which the courts must have particular regard when deciding whether to allow personal injury or death claims connected with overseas military operations to proceed after the primary time limit expires, and sets the maximum time limit for such claims at six years. The Government’s intent behind that is to help ensure that claims for compensation for personal injuries or deaths arising from overseas military operations are brought more promptly, and to help achieve a fair outcome for victims, for the service personnel and veterans who might be called upon to give evidence, and for the taxpayer.
Sections 11 and 12 of the Limitation Act 1980 set a three-year primary time limit for claims for personal injury or death, as do equivalent provisions in the other jurisdictions of the United Kingdom. This three-year time limit is not absolute, as the House heard from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, when introducing the debate. Section 33 of the 1980 Act gives the courts discretion to allow claims to proceed beyond that time limit if it is considered that it is equitable so to do.
When assessing whether it is fair to allow a claim beyond the initial three-year limitation period, courts must have regard to all the circumstances of the case and, in particular, to six factors which are set out in Section 33 of the 1980 Act. In broad terms, these relate to the steps taken by the claimant to bring the claim, the reasons for delay and the effect of the delay on the quality of the evidence.
The Government’s view is that these factors do not adequately recognise or reflect the uniquely challenging context of overseas military operations—a factor, I think, which is recognised more or less universally across your Lordships’ House. The Government are concerned that, unless the courts are directed to consider factors that are relevant to overseas operations, they may wrongly conclude that it is fair to allow older claims connected with overseas operations to proceed beyond the primary time limit.
This clause, in connection with Schedule 2, therefore introduces the three new factors, of which your Lordships have heard once again today, that the Government consider properly reflect the operational context in which the claims arose and to which the courts must have particular regard. These are the extent to which the assessment of the claim will depend on the memories of service personnel and veterans; the impact of the operational context on their ability to recall the specific incident; and the impact of so doing on their mental health. These new factors reflect the reality of overseas military operations; the fact that opportunities to make detailed records at the time may be limited; that increased reliance may have to be placed on the memories of the personnel involved; and that, as some of them may be suffering from mental health illnesses due to their service, there is a human cost in so doing. Clause 8, in connection with Schedule 2, also introduces, as your Lordships are aware, an absolute limit of six years for claims for personal injuries or death connected with overseas military operations.
In introducing the debate in your Lordships’ House, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, styled the three new factors as being “extraordinary”. I would rather say that they are an effort to recognise—to acknowledge —the unique context of which I have spoken, and which I think the House generally acknowledges.
This change, introducing an absolute longstop or time limit of six years for claims for personal injuries or death connected with overseas operations, brings the matter in line with claims for other torts or delicts that may occur on operations, such as false imprisonment, as set out in Section 2 of the Limitation Act 1980. It will give service personnel and veterans a level of certainty that they will not be called upon indefinitely to recall often traumatic incidents that they have understandably sought to put behind them.
Importantly, the existing date of knowledge provision in the 1980 Act, and in equivalent legislation in the other jurisdictions, means that for situations where an illness connected with an overseas operation does not manifest itself until many years after the incident—for example, post-traumatic stress disorder—the six-year time limit does not start until the date of knowledge, which may be the date of diagnosis. It is the same with other latent conditions such as the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, was describing when he gave your Lordships the example of mesothelioma, a cancer arising out of exposure to asbestos.
Lastly, the clause, in conjunction with Schedule 2, amends the Foreign Limitation Periods Act 1984 so that claimants cannot benefit from more generous time limits allowed under foreign law. This change is needed for consistency and will ensure that no claim is brought after six years.
To go back to the questions that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, put in relation to the date of knowledge, a claimant’s date of knowledge is the date on which they first had knowledge that their injury was significant and attributable to a negligent act or omission by an identifiable defendant. An injury is significant if the claimant would reasonably have considered it sufficiently serious to justify bringing a legal claim. A claimant must take reasonable steps to establish the significance of their injury by seeking medical or other expert advice and whether their injury was attributable to the negligent act or omission of an identifiable defendant. That means that a service person’s date of knowledge will be the date on which they establish, such as by obtaining a formal diagnosis, that they have suffered a significant injury as a result of their service, and that they suspect that the Ministry of Defence acted negligently.
The changes that this clause and Schedule 2 introduce go only so far as is necessary to ensure a fair outcome. They do not affect the way in which the time period is calculated, nor do they affect those provisions that suspend time in appropriate circumstances. They are also consistent with court rulings that claimants do not need to be provided with an indefinite opportunity to obtain a remedy—the very reason why courts have limitation periods in the first place. As my noble friend Lady Goldie remarked in relation to another group earlier, the courts have recognised that limitation periods have an important role to play in ensuring legal certainty and finality and in preventing injustice. As my noble friend Lord Faulks said, there is a difficult balance to be struck where limitation periods are involved, but such a balance must be struck. The changes that this clause, in conjunction with Schedule 2, introduces are proportionate and strike an appropriate balance between victims’ rights and access to justice on the one hand and fairness to those who defend this country on the other.
I shall not repeat the same arguments for Clauses 9 and 10, which amend the relevant legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but I will just add that the Limitation Act 1980 covers only claims brought in England and Wales. It is therefore necessary to extend similar provisions across the whole of the United Kingdom to ensure that the same limitation rules apply to the same claims. It would be deeply unsatisfactory if the changes which the Government are introducing to help achieve a fairer outcome in relation to claims brought in England and Wales could be circumvented by bringing a claim in Scotland or Northern Ireland—a species of forum shopping—instead.
Amendment 13 would carve out claims by service personnel and veterans from the limitation longstops in Part 2. I acknowledge the concerns that some of your Lordships have in relation to the impact of the new absolute limitation periods on the ability of service personnel and veterans to bring claims, but I cannot be clearer in stating, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, anticipated I would, that I believe the impact on them in practice will be minimal.
The limitation longstops in Part 2 have been introduced to help address the difficulties that the Ministry of Defence has faced in defending civil claims arising from historic overseas military operations. They also provide greater legal certainty, as well as greater certainty to service personnel and veterans that they will not be called on many years after operations have ended to give evidence about traumatic events relevant to a claim.
What is also important for service personnel, however, is that these measures may help reduce criminal investigations many years or decades after operations have ended. This is because the longstops will likely encourage any civil claims to be brought sooner, and any associated criminal allegations are also therefore likely to be investigated sooner. This reduces the risk of criminal investigations arising many decades later as a result of allegations made in civil claims. Without the hard longstops, there is no certainty for service personnel, as civil claims brought after six years may well lead to criminal investigations many years after the event. This is why Part 2 protects service personnel, not the Ministry of Defence. I offer that assurance once again to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup.
Noble and gallant Lords will know that the circumstances of overseas military operations are specific and unusual. It is this context that we need to consider when comparing claims arising from overseas operations to those arising in non-operational contexts. When considering civil claims connected with overseas operations, the Ministry of Defence has faced difficulties arising from the lack of accurate contemporaneous records. When deployed on an overseas operation, the Armed Forces are in the unique circumstance of being under almost constant threat of attack, where decisions need to be made extremely quickly and under great stress. This can make it difficult to be certain about what happened during a particular incident and to capture the level of detailed information and accurate records needed to help determine a claim.
This lack of accurate records means that claims connected with overseas operations are often heavily reliant on the memories of current and former service personnel who frequently interact with hundreds of people during a single deployment and may deploy multiple times. In many of the hundreds of recent cases against the Ministry of Defence connected with overseas operations, it has been found that service personnel simply cannot remember particular events giving rise to claims, let alone the claimants themselves. This is part of that unique context we were describing where there are difficulties attached to stale claims which are different from those attached to stale claims in the domestic context.
It is in the interest of claimants who bring claims in connection with overseas operations to do so in a timely fashion because it is much more likely that the facts of the situation can be determined more accurately, thus offering a greater chance to achieve the justice which is the intention underlying all claims.
Encouragingly, the vast majority of service personnel and veterans already bring timely claims. Analysis of relevant figures indicates—again, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, anticipated me—that around 94% of claims from service personnel and veterans arising from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan were brought within six years of the date of the incident or the date of knowledge. That means that carving out claims by service personnel from the longstops would have very little practical impact.
It would also mean that the longstop measures in Part 2 would no longer be compatible with our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. Here I am anticipated by the contribution of my noble friend Lord Faulks, who anticipated my submission in relation to this discriminatory aspect, and I seek to answer the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, on this point, which he also raised. It would be incompatible because in disapplying the longstops to claims by service personnel connected with overseas operations, we would be discriminating, with no justifiable reason, against non-service personnel who also bring claims connected with overseas operations. I am sure your Lordships would agree that we do not want to render the Bill incompatible with our ECHR obligations. To avoid this, we need to ensure that this amendment does not form part of the Bill.
It is also our view that personnel deployed on overseas operations are not in an analogous situation with those who are not so deployed. We therefore consider that the difference in treatment between their claims is justified. This is because the circumstances in which claims connected with overseas operations arise are specific and unusual.
Additionally, the difficulties that arise from claims connected with historic overseas operations relating to the lack of accurate contemporaneous records and increased reliance on the fading memories of personnel do not arise in the same way in claims not connected with historic overseas operations. This is the point of principle that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, called upon me to produce. This is the compelling reason sought by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti.
We consider that six years is a reasonable and sufficient period to bring a claim, while also proving that much-needed legal certainty. We consider that a six-year absolute time limit is compatible with our ECHR obligations, and, importantly, an absolute time limit of six years also has precedent in English and Welsh law. Section 2 of the Limitation Act 1980 already has a six-year time limit for bringing claims for intentional torts. To refer again to the case mentioned by my noble friend Lady Goldie, in Stubbings v the United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights confirmed that this absolute time limit is compatible with the UK’s ECHR obligations.
It is true, of course, that based on our analysis of historic claims, 6% of service personnel historically brought their claims after six years from the date of incident or knowledge. I accept that the Government have a role to play in ensuring that potential claimants know about the measures we are introducing with this Bill. We will therefore educate service personnel at crucial points in their careers to remind them that a claim in connection with an overseas operation will have to be brought within the relevant time periods. For example, service personnel will be taught about these time limits at pre-deployment training, as well as during their resettlement training.
The noble Lord, Lord Hendy, referred to acting in a professional capacity at the Bar in relation to a member of a constituent’s family sadly killed by friendly fire while on operations. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, posed the question of whether we are to assume that the Government would consider it acceptable that 6% of meritorious claims should be lost. Grouping these two questions together, I answer no, but I am reluctant to argue in relation to cases taken in the abstract as opposed to particular examples where a meritorious claim would have been lost by the application of a six-year absolute time period.
It is worth reminding ourselves that limitation longstops will cover only a very small subset of the personal injury claims brought by current and former service personnel against the MoD. Additionally, personnel will continue to have access to the Armed Forces compensation scheme.
I note the observation made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, regarding the desirability of establishing “a hard-edged cut-off”. However, for the reasons that I have advanced, we consider that this reflects adequately these unique circumstances, which are the very justification for the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about the operation of the covenant, and as I approach my conclusion, let me state that Part 2 of the Bill will not breach the Armed Forces covenant. The covenant states that those who serve in the Armed Forces, whether regular or reserve, those who have served in the past, and their families, should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services. Once again, for the reasons I have put forward, we are not talking about incidents which took place on Salisbury Plain. We are talking about incidents giving rise to claims which took place in the unique circumstances of deployment on overseas operations.
The primary focus of the Armed Forces covenant is to ensure that service personnel and veterans are not disadvantaged in comparison with civilians in the same position. Indeed, the longstops in Part 2 will apply in the same way to all claimants bringing claims connected with overseas operations against the MoD, whether they are military personnel, civil servants, contractors or local nationals. No disadvantage arises from service as a member of the Armed Forces in relation to these measures because everyone, whether military or civilian, who is deployed on an overseas operation or affected by one is treated equally in this respect.
Finally, I refer to the questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton. Much of his submission to your Lordships this afternoon dealt with his ongoing discussions with my noble friend Lady Goldie and others. I have not contributed to these and my views have not been sought. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord and the House will forgive me for not attempting to present an answer at this stage.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said that he would not seek a vote on his amendments. I conclude by urging the noble Lords responsible for the other amendment to withdraw it.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, for their support for my Amendments 7 and 8. I am also grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, for pointing to the difficulties for MoD civilians who are deployed on overseas matters.
The argument put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart, is that Amendment 13 would not apply to them. It would discriminate against them because they are not included—so what do you do? You do not add in the MoD civilian employees; you reduce the rights of the combatants—it seems completely topsy-turvy. Another argument is: everything is okay because, when the guillotine comes down, there will only be a few people left on the other side. I do not think that that is a proper basis for a policy.
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart of Dirleton, for answering the questions that I posed, and I shall study his answers with care. When he said that these proposals encourage civil claims to be brought more promptly, I reflected that, not an hour or two ago, the Government resisted the code that I proposed, in Amendment 6, to do precisely that in criminal matters. I argued there for matters to be brought more promptly, and the Government resisted those proposals—but I am pleased to see that the amendment passed.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart, said that there are factors unique to overseas operations that prevent, rather than allow, the extension of time. Overseas operations are extremely difficult, as was discussed in earlier debates; it is extremely difficult to pursue a claim, to get the evidence right and to get the advice, witnesses and so on. You would have thought that overseas operations would allow for more time to bring an action, not less.
The balance, apparently, is to be struck such that the problems of investigating witnesses’ memories are to come before the death or mutilation of a victim. The Welshpool figure of justice, with the scales of justice permanently tilted in one direction, comes to mind.
I have indicated that I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 7 and shall not move Amendment 8, but we shall certainly support Amendment 13 when it is put.
Amendment 7 withdrawn.
Clause 9: Restrictions on time limits to bring actions: Scotland
Amendment 8 not moved.
Clause 10: Restrictions on time limits to bring actions: Northern Ireland
Amendment 9 not moved.
Clause 11: Court’s discretion to extend time in certain Human Rights Act proceedings
Amendment 10 not moved.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 11. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in the debate.
Clause 12: Duty to consider derogation from Convention
11: Leave out Clause 12
My Lords, I understand that this may be quite a short debate, but I should like to say a few words by way of introduction, to explain again why I am unhappy with Clause 12. I still find it hard to know what to make of it. As I said in Committee, at first sight the clause is simply unnecessary. The power to derogate from our obligations under the European Convention by means of a derogation order under Section 14 of the Human Rights Act 1998 already exists. Of course, we must remember, as we were reminded last time, that derogation orders are open to judicial review, so derogation is not something to be undertaken lightly. Nevertheless, once again 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. This clause adds nothing to the existing law.
However, there is a much more troubling aspect to this issue than that. Is the clause there simply to send a message? If so, to whom, why, and what is the message? We must remember 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 of the convention, on the other hand, says that derogation may be resorted to only in time of war or other public emergency
“threatening the life of the nation”.
It is hard to see how conducting operations overseas in themselves, if that is all we were doing, could satisfy that test, even if they are or would be significant.
The fact that the clause shrinks from using the words of Article 15 makes me wonder whether the meaning and effect of Article 15 has been properly analysed. I wonder whether the 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 a real danger that it will lead those who may be encouraged by this clause to resort to a derogation order when its use could not be justified. The message, if there is one, seems to be offering something that the Government cannot deliver.
There is no sign either that the Government have appreciated the other limitations in Article 15.2 of the convention. 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; 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, which is what the 2001 order case, which pointed to the way that derogation orders are subject to judicial review, was about. Is this the purpose of the clause? Is it simply so that our Armed Forces can lock up any person they detain during their operations without trial indefinitely? If so, why does the clause not come out into the open and confine its scope to that article, for that is really all it could achieve?
I suspect that the Minister is unable to give clear and convincing answers to these questions, as she has chosen to make a statement immediately after me. I look forward to that statement and I very much hope that she will be able to give me an undertaking that this clause will be removed from the Bill. That, I think, is the only way that the real danger to which I have referred can be avoided. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution which I hope may assist the progress of the debate on this amendment. I am very conscious that I have been unable to radiate much cheer this afternoon, so I will try to do better. As the noble and learned Lord has stated, Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides that, subject to certain conditions, states may derogate from—that is, temporarily suspend—relevant human rights obligations. Clause 12 would require any Government in future to consider whether to make a derogation under Article 15 in relation to significant overseas operations.
I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for his analytical clarity in addressing the issue surrounding Clause 12. He has been persistent in his focus on this issue and I thank him for that close attention. He is correct that the ability under Article 15 to derogate in appropriate circumstances would remain and would not be affected by the removal of Clause 12 from the Bill. It is also the case that the removal of Clause 12 would not prevent the Government from making a conscious decision when committing the Armed Forces to significant overseas operations as to whether it is necessary to avail themselves of the suspension mechanism created by Article 15 of the ECHR. It is important to recall that, if the UK did decide to so derogate in relation to a specific future overseas military operation, it would not prevent Armed Forces personnel or the MoD from being held to account.
Having listened closely to the issues raised about the way in which the Government have presented this clause—as I promised the noble and learned Lord in Committee I would do—and, although the Government consider that there was a place for originally including the clause in the Bill, I have detected that the House is sympathetic to the representations of the noble and learned Lord, and that there is a general consensus across the House for the removal of this clause. I am therefore pleased to confirm that the Government will accept the noble and learned Lord’s amendment to remove Clause 12 from the Bill.
My Lords, I am relieved to hear the Minister’s statement concerning Clause12 and its removal. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, asked who the message was to be sent to. The proposal to give notice to a potential enemy that British forces would not be bound by the restraints of the European Convention on Human Rights was truly alarming. It would have exposed our troops in the field to reciprocal treatment.
I followed the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, in Committee in pointing out the utter uselessness of this clause anyway, in that it could not deal with those most pertinent and significant rights in the covenant from which no derogation is possible. It did not even try to mirror the circumstances of war or national emergency contained in Article 15, which permit derogation only in very strict circumstances. I do not propose to repeat that analysis.
The Government have thought again on the desirability of this clause. I urge them to think again on the desirability of the whole Bill. I urge them to pull the whole Bill and bring it back in the next Session after proper consultation. I do not say this from any party-political position but wearing the hat of the chair of the Association of Military Court Advocates. I cannot say that I am speaking for that association because no meetings have been possible during the pandemic, but you will appreciate that its members’ primary concern is with defending the ordinary service man or woman in courts martial, many of which relate to overseas operations.
For the reasons which I gave in relation to Amendments 1 and 6 and will not repeat at this stage, this Bill does not protect our service men and women. The only body protected by the Bill is the Ministry of Defence, probably for the ignoble reason given in Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Hendy: to save a bob or two. It is badly thought out, with many omissions and with repercussions that were not understood, not least in its failure to carry out the manifesto commitment of the Government to give statutory force to the military covenant—a matter which we shall shortly discuss. So, they should pull it now, and by all means bring it back in the next Session in a form which will be of use to and protect serving seamen, soldiers and airmen, without the ill thought-out provisions which expose them to danger. I say to the Government: pull the Bill.
My Lords, I too welcome the Minister’s statement. As I have reminded the House, the Government’s justification for this clause to amend the Human Rights Act 1998 was to reflect the undertaking of a ministerial Statement by the then Defence Secretary, and repeated in this House by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, on 10 October 2016. If the Government still stand by it, it is worth recalling parts of that Statement. It explained that in overseas operations our personnel have had to face growing legal uncertainty and an unprecedented level of litigation. The Statement said that
“the resulting uncertainties have been distressing to many current personnel and veterans, and military advice is that there is a risk of seriously undermining the operational effectiveness of the armed forces”.—[Official Report, Commons, 10/10/16; col. 3WS]
I draw attention to the risk mentioned in that Statement—the risk of seriously undermining the operational effectiveness of the Armed Forces when engaged in conflict.
The Bill does not adequately address the growing concern that commanders of whatever rank may, for fear of later legal challenge or charge, be unsure or inhibited in the orders or directions they give to engage and defeat an enemy in the course of conflict. Statements about combat immunity in relation to human rights legislation lack the precision required for conflict. To state that a court should be
“very slow … to question operational decisions made on the ground by commanders, whatever their rank or level of seniority”
lacks precision for commanders at the time, on the spot. Even before a case reaches court, the accused will be subject to worries and uncertainty for weeks, months and even years while evidence is collected, witnesses identified and prosecuting authorities decide whether to take the case to court for trial. Some might even describe this as mental torture.
In Smith, the judgment was that there is a “middle ground” between close combat on the one hand and political direction on the other about the allocation of resources, where the actions or omissions of individual service personnel can be determined only on the evidence ex post facto—that is, a review far removed in time, place and emotion from the possible extreme dangers of the moment.
I am not questioning these well-argued legal judgments but drawing attention to a mismatch—and I think it is important to draw attention to it—between the disciplinary dictates of the Armed Forces Act and human rights legislation that may arise when service personnel are at or near to war. I drew attention to this in 1998, when debating what is now the Human Rights Act 1998. Regrettably, this Bill does not address this issue, in spite of the Defence Secretary’s Statement. One must hope that the human rights review now being undertaken by Sir Peter Gross—he has assured me that the issue of combat immunity will be considered—will provide a workable solution.
Meanwhile, Clause 12 provided for no more than was originally and clearly stated at the time the Human Rights Bill was being debated in 1998. As the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, said, and these words are well rehearsed already:
“I also remind your Lordships and the noble and gallant Lord—
that is me—
that under Article 15 of the convention a state may, in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation, take measures derogating from its obligations under the convention to the extent required by the exigencies of the situation.”—[Official Report, 5/2/1998; col. 768.]
The noble and learned Lord further asserted that the human rights convention was a flexible instrument. I fear that is now rather a dubious claim. Clause 12 added nothing to what was made clear in 1998, and I welcome the Government’s acceptance of the amendment from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope.
My Lords, I too thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, for his persistence with this, and I especially thank the Minister, for her gracious concession.
It was just a few weeks ago that the former Prime Minister Mrs May warned the Government, in another place, of what she described as the
“fine line between being popular and populist”.—[Official Report, Commons, 15/3/21; col. 78.]
I wonder whether that line is quite so fine. To be more explicit than the noble and learned Lord, dog whistles are bad enough in politics, but they are a lot worse in legislation and worse still when they are by way of legislative amendment to the Human Rights Act—our modern Bill of Rights. To turn the power to consider derogation into an express statutory duty, but not to import the appropriate legal test for such a derogation, was a very dangerous dog whistle indeed. I am very glad that it has been withdrawn. Like the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, I hope that the Government continue in this positive vein and consider other fundamental concerns about the Bill in general.
I do not want to be churlish. This is an important concession from the Government; to treat the Human Rights Act in this way, and to set a precedent for creating duties to derogate and put them in the Act, would have been very dangerous and would have sent a bad signal about the Government’s commitment to human rights at home and internationally.
I thank the Minister for her pragmatic approach to this. I entirely agree with the analysis of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, that the real issue was Article 5 and the right and ability to detain on the battlefield. There was a real problem there and, with respect to the Government, they were right to consider it. The unfortunate thing is that they chose the wrong route. I do not think that they considered carefully enough the decisions of the Supreme Court in Al-Waheed and Serdar Mohammed. But, if a problem remains, I am sure that it will be looked at sympathetically because, for the protection of our troops, it is necessary to take a realistic view of the ability to detain on the battlefield or in close proximity to it. Again, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, for his clear analysis of this, and the Minister, for her wise decision.
My Lords, like others, I welcome the Government’s concession on this amendment and thank the noble Baroness for having listened, gone away and come back with a helpful proposal. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, I suggest that it would be good if Ministers talk to their colleagues in another place and consider whether, rather than insisting that amendments that have passed through your Lordships’ House today have to be subjected to votes in the other place and brought back and forth for ping-pong, the Government could perhaps consider their own amendments to deal with the views that have been put forward on genocide and other matters. I do not expect an immediate concession on that from the noble Baroness, but I at least put it out there.
While my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford has clearly made his views known to the House—to kill the Bill—I do not expect that to happen. I do not expect my colleagues to push for a vote to kill the Bill, but, if we could amend it significantly to deal with the real concerns of our service men and women and veterans, it would be all the better for it.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this short debate, and especially to the Minister for her kind words and generous concession, which has solved my problem.
I would like to take a moment to refer to the remarks made by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, who has kindly supported me all the way through my attempt to deal with Clause 12. He has raised again a concern among certain people, which I entirely recognise, that the ability to bring claims under the Human Rights Act risks undermining operations on the ground because decisions taken by the people engaged in them are exposed to the risk of being said to be in breach of the convention rights.
I delivered the leading judgment in the case of Smith v The Ministry of Defence, which the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, referred to earlier this afternoon. One of his clients was the mother of a solider who was, unfortunately, killed by friendly fire from a tank operating in the same battlefield. I spent considerable energy, in delivering my leading speech, to make it clear that the ratio that had driven me to reach the conclusions I did was concerned with actions by the MoD far removed by the battlefield. I made it clear that decisions made in the circumstances of combat by people usually under great stress and pressure was not what the Human Rights Act claim was about. It was about decisions taken, as the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, explained, long before the operations began which could legitimately be criticised as breaching the convention right.
The decision that I led has been misunderstood because of a dissenting judgment, which has received more weight than it should have since it was only a dissent. So, I would encourage those who still have a lingering doubt to look carefully at my judgment, which was a majority judgment. They will see that it contains the reassurance I think the noble and gallant Lord, Lord of Craig of Radley, is seeking.
That said, I come back to the Minister. I am well aware that a speech of the kind she has made this afternoon cannot be made without discussion behind the scenes. She listened carefully to what I said last time, and we owe her a great debt for taking up the points I made, understanding them and putting them across to others to achieve the result we have achieved this afternoon. We owe her a considerable debt and are fortunate to have her in the House as a Minister. I commend Amendment 11, the effect of which is that Clause 12 should not stand part of the Bill.
Amendment 11 agreed.
Amendment 12 not moved.
13: After Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—
“Restrictions on time limits: actions brought against the Crown by service personnel
Nothing in this Part applies to any action brought against the Crown by a person who is a member or former member of the regular or reserve forces, or of a British overseas territory force to whom section 369(2) of the Armed Forces Act 2006 (members of British overseas territories’ forces serving with UK forces) applies.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause amends Part 2 of the Bill so that it explicitly excludes actions brought against the Crown by serving or former service personnel from the limitations on courts’ discretion that the Part imposes in respect of actions relating to overseas operations.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 14. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make this clear in the debate.
14: 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 update, and(b) include the update in the Armed Forces Covenant annual report when it is laid before Parliament.(4) The duty of care update is a review about the continuous process 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 update 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 litigation arising from overseas operations, and to include a duty of care update in the Armed Forces Covenant Annual Report.
My Lords, in opening this short debate on Amendment 14, I first thank the noble Baroness the Minister and the Minister for Defence People and Veterans for meeting me and other noble Lords on matters pertaining to this and other amendments. Indeed, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for meeting me twice on these matters.
It is perhaps no surprise that I am of the view that we share common objectives for the Bill, which I hope will become an Act within this parliamentary Session. These common objectives include the better protection of serving and veteran soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines from repeated and extended investigations and unjustified prosecutions arising from their service on behalf of the nation on overseas operations.
We also share the common objective of properly supporting such personnel while they are going through an investigation and prosecution process—after all, when a soldier lays their life on the line at the behest of their employer, I am sure that we can agree that he or she has a right to expect that employer to exercise a proper duty of care towards him or her as they go through any investigative or judicial process.
If we are broadly agreed on the common objective, where we are not yet fully agreed is on the scheme of manoeuvre—the campaign plan, if you like—to reach that common objective, but we are making progress, and many of the constituent parts of a successful plan are beginning to emerge. Amendment 6, which we earlier debated and voted to stand part of the Bill, for the time being at least, is an important and welcome addition to the provision of safeguards into the investigation of allegations relating to overseas operations. Moreover, the Minister has today released a Written Ministerial Statement asserting that the purpose of the Bill is to provide better legal protection to Armed Forces personnel and veterans serving on military operations overseas. The Statement references and underlines a defence instruction and notice whose basic principle is that the department
“is committed to standing behind its people who act reasonably and in good faith in the course of their duties”.
If we are agreed that a good employer will discharge a proper duty of care towards its people, then the pieces of this jigsaw—this campaign plan—are beginning to come together. Amendment 14 would join those parts of the jigsaw into one picture, to bring these hard-fought battles and engagements into line in a comprehensive campaign plan for the benefit of our people in uniform and for those who have worn a uniform in the past.
Defence priorities change; the fortunes of military charities fluctuate; Ministers come and go; but the law does not change. Amendment 14 would bring into law the good ideas and intentions of well-meaning Ministers and officials with whom we are currently united in common cause but who are strangely reluctant to enshrine the fruits of their endeavours in a Bill which will become an Act of Parliament and thus part of our law—a law to protect our people for all time from vexatious investigations and prosecutions.
I have heard an argument that says that if we enshrine a duty of care in law it will present the possibility of creating grounds whereby disaffected parties could take the MoD to court if in their opinion the terms of the legally binding duty of care had not been adhered to, but is that really an honourable or credible argument against creating a duty of care in the first place? Surely in any walk of life, rules and regulations setting out what is and what is not acceptable are a commonplace occurrence. If you act within the rules, all is fine, but if you step outside, then sanctions follow. I am no lawyer, but I am sufficiently aware of the way our civilised society is organised to know that if I step outside the law, whether it is in a transaction on the high street or in my behaviour on a rugby field, I will be sanctioned. Is the Ministry of Defence so frightened that if it establishes a duty of care that passes into law and then it acts outside that law some of its employees might sue it? Surely the correct approach is for the Ministry of Defence to lay down a duty of care within the next six months, as Amendment 14 suggests, and then commit to live within that legally based statement of the duty of care for the benefit and transparency of both the employer and employees. Is that too much to ask? I beg to move.
My Lords, I offer my support for this amendment for all the reasons given by my noble friend Lord Dannatt. I thought that it would be right for me as a lawyer to ask myself whether the amendment was asking the Secretary of State to do something that our legal system would find hard to recognise or put into effect. It is a long amendment, full of what no doubt was thought to be necessary detail; but the key words to which I have directed my attention are to be found in proposed new subsection (1), read together with the definition in proposed new subsection (7). They are the words “duty of care”, which are used to define the obligation that is already owed to service personnel, both moral and legal, to ensure their well-being.
There are a number of things that need to be said to explain why the amendment has my support. First, this is a duty of care, not an absolute duty. It sets a standard that the amendment is talking about at the right level. An absolute duty is a duty that must be complied with irrespective of the circumstances. What has been talked about here is a duty to take reasonable care to achieve that standard. It is not driving the Secretary of State to achieve something that cannot be achieved with the exercise of ordinary care.
Secondly, the concept of setting a standard to be applied in addressing the needs of a particular group within our community is not new. It is familiar in the context of healthcare, for example, with regard to the care of the elderly.
Thirdly, and most importantly in view of the point made by my noble friend some moments ago, the method used should not be seen as encouraging a resort to litigation any more than the setting of standards does in healthcare. What is sought is to set a standard of behaviour, not a set of statuary rules. If litigation has to be resorted to, the complaint would be of a failure in a duty to take reasonable care, using the standard simply as setting out the criteria for what that duty required. There is nothing novel in that approach.
The Ministerial Statement that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, very helpfully read out to us when speaking on amendments in the first group this afternoon is, of course, to be welcomed. I do not for a moment doubt its sincerity, but Ministers come and go, and Ministerial Statements are, I fear, a bit like the Cheshire Cat. This amendment seeks to bring it up to a higher level of formality. Added to that, it seeks to ensure that the matter is kept under continuous review and public scrutiny. All that seems to me to be for the good. Therefore, if the amendment is put to a vote, I will support it.
My Lords, I have thought carefully about this amendment since Committee, when it was moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt. I also reread the debate that took place on that occasion. The amendment received a great deal of support around the House, which was plainly directed towards our Armed Forces and reflected a general desire to ensure that they were, and would be, properly protected against any of the consequences that followed from vexatious claims and repeated investigations. That is of course what lies behind the Bill as it is.
When I first saw the amendment, I thought that it was essentially probing. To that extent, it could be said that the amendment succeeded, albeit rather at the 11th hour, in provoking the Statement issued today and read out by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. During the debate in Committee, however, the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, said that the duty of care standard—the expression used in the amendment—which would be established by the Secretary of State in this amendment, if properly worded, would prevent the outrageous behaviour of Phil Shiner and others. In response to the Minister’s reply to the debate, the noble Lord also said that the duty of care would end recurrent vexatious claims and almost unending investigations.
My difficulty with this amendment is that I am not convinced that it would in fact do so. The Secretary of State’s duty of care standard could set out what he or she thought were the obligations that were owed to service personnel involved in investigations or litigations arising out of overseas operations, and that is clear from the Statement made today, which set out in some detail the various ways in which our Armed Forces are supported. The comment made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart, about educating the Armed Forces to bring claims promptly was also helpful in that regard. However, the Secretary of State could not create by the duty of care standard any change in the law or provide any defence which did not exist either at common law or in statute. Any actual changes would have to be incorporated in the Bill or in some other piece of legislation.
There are ways in which the Bill could be improved, and in the course of debates various measures have been suggested, although none of them addressed the real mischief. That could really be achieved only if the Government and Parliament were to decide that the Human Rights Act should have no extraterritorial application. As I said in Committee, if that was the law—the then Labour Government who brought in the Human Rights Act thought that it was, and Lord Bingham in the Al-Skeini case thought that was the decision—the investigations which in turn generated vexatious litigation and repeated investigations would never have taken place. However, the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Al-Skeini, responding to an appeal brought by Mr Shiner, among other lawyers, was persuaded that the ECHR applied outside the individual state’s territory and indeed outside territories which were within the European convention: that is, outside the scope of members of the Council of Europe.
As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, pointed out, Sir Peter Gross and his committee are considering this very point at the moment, and I hope that in due course there will be a suitable amendment to the Human Rights Act which will provide considerable assistance in the future in preventing many of the abuses that took place in the past, such as the appalling victimisation of Major Bob Campbell. In the meantime, I fear we must satisfy ourselves with what modest gains can be obtained from this legislation. The presumption against prosecution after five years would provide some reassurance to our service personnel, as indeed was acknowledged by Major Campbell himself when he gave evidence before a House of Commons Committee. The long-stop provisions in Part 2 should put a more or less final line under potential litigation, which will have effect across the board whether the claimants are civilians, members of our Armed Forces, or actual or potential witnesses to some claim.
It seems that the amendment is effectively saying, “Bring us a better Bill.” I am sure that noble Lords have considerable sympathy for any such request—or is it more like an order? However, if this amendment becomes part of the Bill, I fear that it will be something of a declaration, without any true effect. Therefore, with very considerable reluctance, because I share the concern of all those who support the amendment, I fear I cannot support it.
My Lords, as speakers ahead of me, and especially my noble friend Lord Dannatt, spoke eloquently in support of this amendment, I will not tax your Lordships’ patience by repeating all that has been said. However, I wish to reinforce the point that we need something of a more permanent nature by which the Government may be held to account rather than a set of conventions and understandings, including defence instructions and notices. These can be easily changed or cancelled without any significant effort or recourse to Parliament. That is why, although I have very carefully read the Ministerial Statement that the Minister laid before us this morning, which sets out what is available to Armed Forces personnel, serving or veteran, I am afraid that it does not offer the guarantee of permanency of the responsibility of the MoD for the duty of care that this amendment proposes.
I also share, by the way, some of the concerns about the Statement expressed earlier today by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. Furthermore, regarding that Ministerial Statement, I am incidentally unclear of the definition of “legacy cases” that the Army Operational Legacy Branch has been created to deal with. That also raises the interesting question of why exemption from means testing for legal aid cannot be applicable for criminal cases arising from all overseas operations, not just Iraq and Afghanistan.
This Bill, which sets out to relieve the strain on personnel under investigation, must surely reflect the fact that the MoD has a statutory obligation for the care of such people. I therefore support Amendment 14.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, in support of the vital amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt. It is vital because there does not seem to be anything quite like it on the statute book.
While the Bill, controversially, attempts to protect the MoD from civil suit and individual members of the Armed Forces and veterans from criminal prosecution, it does not provide actual support for them. It does not provide mental health support, legal support or anything else mentioned in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt.
I will not repeat what I said earlier, but even the Statement that was made today clearly to reassure your Lordships that the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, is not necessary gives me cause for concern. There are holes in the automatic non-means-tested legal advice and support, which should be automatic and non-means-tested for any serving member of the Armed Forces or veteran, whether they are facing investigation or prosecution or are a potential witness. That was the biggest problem I found.
Even the mental health support was less than specific or certain and seemed to be about signposting people to general NHS services, even though we all accept that people serving overseas are under particular strain. If their mental health is under particular strain and they are especially exposed to the law, as the Government maintain, why do they not get specific statutory and automatic support?
This is perhaps one of the most important parts of the debate today, and this amendment is possibly one of the most important that has been tabled. I sincerely hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, will press it to a vote.
My Lords, I start by adding my thanks to the Minister for the time and trouble she has taken since Committee to listen to the concerns that my noble friend Lord Dannatt and the other movers of this amendment, of whom I am one, have sought to address. The Government have argued, and no doubt will continue to argue, that what we are trying to achieve is both unnecessary and dangerous. I am unconvinced and I shall try to explain why.
In her response in Committee, the Minister pointed to the mechanisms and processes already in place to support service personnel and veterans. There are indeed both official and charitable structures set up for this purpose; they do a great deal of excellent work, as today’s ministerial Statement made clear. But as I tried to explain in Committee, the situation of those accused of criminal activities and subject to the corresponding and prolonged investigations is particularly difficult. I pointed out that the stresses on these individuals and their families are profound and enduring.
These people are not just accused of a crime; they are charged with trampling underfoot the values and ethos that are an essential element of the special body of which they have been a trusted part. They are suspected of betraying their comrades and bringing them into disrepute. I ask noble Lords to imagine what sort of impact all of that has on people who are members of such a close and unique community.
It is alas true that in some cases the opprobrium will be deserved, but we also know that in such circumstances the innocent and the guilty will suffer alike. Even a subsequent and unequivocal demonstration of innocence will not entirely remove the shadow from their lives or allow them to feel quite the same ever again.
Given such horrendous and, in some cases, undeserved consequences, is it so unreasonable to seek a special degree of support for these people? Is it unreasonable to ask that the requirement for and processes to deliver such support should be codified? After all, Part 1 of this Bill is itself mostly about codifying procedures that nearly everyone agrees a competent prosecuting authority would follow in any case. If these need to be set out in the Bill, why not the processes for ensuring the appropriate source of support for service personnel and veterans? To argue in favour of the former and against the latter would strike me as strangely inconsistent. Just to be clear, I do not believe that defence information notices constitute adequate codification.
The dangers that the Government seem to think lurk within this amendment apparently derive from the legal rights it would afford to those it seeks to protect. The accused could sue the Government if they thought that they had been inadequately supported—and who is to say what level of support should be considered adequate? The only beneficiaries, it appears, would be the legal profession.
Well, my first response would be that if the Government failed to provide the appropriate support, then they should be liable. It seems that in this day and age, we are keen to afford justiciable rights to just about everyone—except our service men and women. As to the definition of adequacy, I entirely accept that Amendment 14 as worded may not have adequately circumscribed this, but is it really beyond the wit of government lawyers to come up with a form of words that would do the trick? Surely, the concept of reasonableness and the appropriate kinds of test are not alien to our legal system.
The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, has said that this amendment would do nothing to prevent future Shiners, and I agree with him. I also agree wholeheartedly that tackling the difficulties caused by the extraterritorial application of the Human Rights Act is essential. None of this, though, obviates the need to support those who need our help.
The Government’s argument appears, in essence, to be, “We don’t think this amendment is necessary because we already do what it suggests, but we’re rather afraid of being sued for not doing what the amendment proposes.” This does not strike me as a tenable position. I urge the Government to think again.
My Lords, I speak in this debate to support the amendment moved by my noble friends. I do so because it is the closest to resolving, or at least ameliorating, the problem—and it is a problem, as many have rehearsed. It is essentially a practical one, relating to training, leadership, command oversight, operational reporting and improved investigative capacity and competence.
I fear that I remain convinced that the resort to legal exceptionalism which this Bill contemplates, and which appears to have initiated so much of the debate in the House, is an ill-considered course of action. It will make our service men and women more, not less, exposed to the challenges of the law. Law, in the context of this debate, is not simply the legislative framework within which war is conducted; it has become a weapon of that war. In the jargon, it is a new vector of attack. By way of emphasising my point, while this Bill has been maturing, we have seen the product of an extended review of the country’s security, defence, development and foreign policy. The results have been the integrated review paper and the companion MoD document, Global Britain in a Competitive Age.
These are both excellent pieces of work and speak to the radically different character of future war. At the heart of both documents are the themes of systemic and enduring competition between nations, between political systems, across multiple spheres. The documents emphasise the lack of clarity over where the threshold of conflict sits, the impossibility of differentiating between peace and war, home and away, friend and foe. They speak of the far greater reliance, in future, on technical advantage, automated processes, autonomous systems. They move the comprehension of conflict beyond the recent sense that it is periodic, adversarial, away fixtures.
In the context of these reviews, does not the Bill have a spectacularly old-fashioned feel about it? It is specifically designed just for overseas, for high-intensity conflict, confined to individual accountability. In the context of the reviews, what contribution does the legal dimension of the Bill make to our avowed national commitment to universal human rights, to the less defined character of future conflict, to the potential introduction of autonomous weapons systems cued by artificial intelligence? The defence procurement process is often accused of bringing complex modifications of yesterday’s equipment to yesterday’s war. I fear that the legal aspects of the Bill feel somewhat akin to the half-brother of that process.
By contrast, I hope that this amendment, in bringing about a more formalised duty of care, will initiate the provision of a more proactive understanding of the changing character of war, and a greater need to exercise command with responsibility before, during and after conflict. I also hope it will help ensure that our Armed Forces, in pursuit of technological advantage, do not fall foul of the promise of novelty and find themselves with capabilities for which no legal framework exists. In this respect, I join my friend the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, in believing that this House needs the opportunity to debate these issues outwith the constraints of the Bill, which I fear does nothing to address them. Indeed, might the Government pull the Bill? Might they adopt a duty of care as the answer to this problem and then return to the more important debate—that is, to reassess the legal framework in which war is conducted in the light of the findings of the integrated review and ask some more fundamental questions about it?
My Lords, we have heard some important speeches making it clear why this amendment is so important. However, I confess that, having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton of Richmond, I almost got to the point that my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford got to on the previous group: ought we to be killing the Bill, or asking the Government to kill it? Although I did not think at the previous stage that this amendment was necessarily a probing amendment, the more I looked at Amendment 14, the more it looked like the Government needed to be thinking about these issues more generally, not just in the context of overseas operations.
The Liberal Democrats will be supporting the amendment, but I think it raises issues which, if the Government have thought about them, have not yet been made clear to your Lordships’ House and perhaps to the other place. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton, pointed out, since the Bill was introduced in the other place, we have had the integrated review, the defence White Paper and the defence industrial strategy. There seems to be a whole swathe of legislation coming forward. We also, I assume at some point, are going to have legislation dealing with historic issues associated with Northern Ireland, and surely the duty of care links to the issues of Northern Ireland.
I did not speak on the second group of amendments, but it was interesting to hear the very different approaches to saying that we need to think about Northern Ireland again. They did not fit into a Bill on overseas operations, quite clearly, yet some of the issues, and that sense of repeated investigations, apply as least as much to Northern Ireland as to overseas operations. Are the Government proposing at some point to bring these themes together? Are they going to be in the Armed Forces Bill 2021? Are we going to see questions of duty of care that ought to be embedded not just in this Bill but more broadly? If not, could the Minister take this away and talk to her colleagues in the MoD Main Building and in the other place?
The Armed Forces Bill is coming up this year. As we have heard, issues about hybrid warfare and artificial intelligence need to be thought about, and potentially thought about differently, but this Bill does not really get into them. I fully understand that the Minister might say that this is intended to be a very small and discrete Bill. That may be so, but if those matters are not being considered in this Bill, are they being considered elsewhere? If not, could she undertake to go away and think about them?
My Lords, we fully support Amendment 14.
By my count, the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Boyce and Lord Stirrup, have about 120 years of service in the Armed Forces between them. They have all argued passionately for a duty of care standard to be in the Bill. As a former acting pilot officer, I have to say that I am very proud of the stance they have taken. It shows that the former leadership of the Armed Forces is capable of being both compassionate and wise. When colleagues of such experience speak, we should listen. I am unsure why the Government remain so resistant to this. We stand foursquare behind our troops and a duty of care would ensure that our Government did so too. We will support the amendment if it is pushed to a vote.
As Amendment 14 refers to legal support, I want to seek some clarity on legal aid. I thank the Minister for writing to me on this issue, but the position stated in the letter is a little different from the position of the Minister in the Commons. The letter says:
“We cannot categorically say that Service personnel will receive legal aid”
but Johnny Mercer said:
“There is … full legal support, paid for by the MOD, for everybody swept up in these investigations.”—[Official Report, Commons, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill Committee, 22/10/20; col. 351.]
Can the Minister confirm that? The letter also says that cuts which were applied to the national legal aid system were also applied to the Armed Forces legal aid scheme as they mirror each other, but the Armed Forces Minister said that the Armed Forces system is “bespoke”. Can the Minister confirm how much money for legal aid has been cut in the last decade from the Armed Forces legal aid scheme? This confusion between Ministers demonstrates exactly why we need protection in the Bill.
Ministers say they have made progress, but ultimately Ministers move on. Let us put a duty of care in the Bill so that personnel have full confidence that Ministers are serious about helping them through difficult times. I look forward to the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, seeking the decision of the House. We will undoubtedly fully support the amendment.
My Lords, this has been an interesting debate and I am very grateful for all the contributions that have been made. Amendment 14 proposes that the Ministry of Defence should establish a statutory 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 provide an annual update in the Armed Forces Covenant Annual Report.
This is obviously a matter of great importance which commands the interest of us all, and I am very grateful to the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Stirrup and Lord Boyce, and the noble Lords, Lord Dannatt and Lord Tunnicliffe, for their commitment to ensuring appropriate protection for our service personnel and veterans and for the conversations we had following the debate in Committee. In terms of the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and the broad objectives which he and the noble and gallant Lords seek to achieve, I doubt if there is a cigarette paper between us—where we diverge is on the mechanism for delivery—so I can see why many are attracted to this amendment and feel the Bill could be enhanced by it.
I start by saying that we take our responsibilities to our service personnel and veterans extremely seriously. I have listened to the concerns raised in Committee and I have met further with the noble and gallant Lords. I thank them for their willingness to have these meetings, which have been constructive. I understood from the meetings that further reassurance was needed about the breadth and depth of support now available to those who are subject to investigations and prosecutions. As has already been referred to, a Written Ministerial Statement was published which set out as a matter of record the diversity and depth of the support that is and will continue to be available.
Although in Committee I provided an overview of the support that we give to our personnel and veterans, I am happy to summarise the key points from the Written Ministerial Statement for the benefit of the House. First—and importantly—as a matter of MoD policy, service personnel are entitled to legal support at public expense where they face criminal allegations and civil claims that relate to actions taken during their service and where they were performing their duties. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, who asked whether there was a discrepancy between the descriptions given of the availability of legal aid, that I am not sure what the nature of the difference is between what I had said and what my honourable friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans said in the other place, but it may have been the simple distinction that there has to be a need to be performing duties. Obviously, a member of the Armed Forces could commit a crime while not engaged in their duties, and one would imagine that that would then become the responsibility of civil authorities if it took place in this country. If it took place overseas, other interventions might be necessary.
Legal advice and support are also available wherever people are required to give evidence at inquests and inquiries and in litigation, and this is co-ordinated by the MoD. This principle is at the heart of the MoD’s approach to supporting our people and is enshrined in the relevant defence instruction notices. I know that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, was slightly caustic about that, but these are the notices which make clear to our Armed Forces personnel what they can expect, in terms of support, from the MoD and their chain of command and what facilities are available to them. It is a responsibility that the MoD takes very seriously, and we keep our policies under review to ensure that they are appropriate and tailored to need.
At an earlier stage this afternoon, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, raised a couple of issues about legal aid, and I will try to clarify what some of this provision is. Any individual who is investigated by the service police is entitled to legal representation as well as the support of an assisting officer, who can then offer advice on the process and procedure and signpost welfare support. Individuals who are interviewed as suspects under caution will be entitled to free and independent legal advice for this stage of investigation. Subsequently, legal funding for service personnel and veterans facing criminal allegations can be provided through the Armed Forces Legal Aid Scheme or through the chain of command for as long as is necessary.
As regards legal aid funding, the Armed Forces Criminal Legal Aid Authority will provide legal aid in circumstances where service personnel are not entitled to regular legal aid because of where they are employed or resident as part of their military duties. Where service personnel’s employment or residence has not disadvantaged them, they can apply for regular legal aid as well, as would a civilian, and are therefore not placed at a disadvantage. Personnel are entitled to apply for legal aid regardless of whether they are considered to have acted outside the scope of their duties, but the MoD can still decide to pay for legal representation in respect of an allegation arising from an act committed in the course of the service personnel’s duties. There is extensive provision. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, was interested in this issue, and I can undertake to provide both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, with more detailed information if that would be helpful to them.
There is also comprehensive welfare support available. The Army Operational Legacy Branch was established last year to co-ordinate the Army’s support to those involved in legacy cases. The AOLB provides a central point of contact and optimises the welfare network already in place through the commanding officer and chain of command, arms and service directorates, and the network of regimental headquarters and regimental associations. Although the AOLB has been established to provide an Army focus to legacy issues, the support that it provides is extended to the other services. Veterans UK is also closely engaged in providing support to veterans and, where required, the Veterans Welfare Service will allocate a welfare manager to support individual veterans.
At an earlier point, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, specifically raised mental health support. I reassure her that much support is provided. This support is in addition to the range of welfare support and mental health support that is routinely offered to all our Armed Forces people. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, acknowledged, the potential impact of operations on a serviceperson’s mental health is well recognised and there are policies and procedures in place to help manage and mitigate these impacts as far as possible. All Armed Forces personnel are supported by dedicated and comprehensive mental health support. Defence mental health services are configured to provide community-based mental health care in line with national best practice. Veterans are able to access all NHS-provided mental health services, wherever they live in the country.
As your Lordships will understand, some of this will occur in the devolved nations. Health is a devolved responsibility and so, within these nations, services have been developed according to local populations’ needs and the service specification will vary depending on what the individual devolved authorities have determined. This can mean bespoke veteran pathways or ensuring an awareness of veterans’ needs. All veterans will be seen on clinical need. Additionally, the Office for Veterans’ Affairs works closely with the MoD and departments across government, the devolved Administrations, charities and academia to ensure that the needs of veterans are met.
Significant progress has been made to ensure that our service personnel and veterans have access to a comprehensive package of legal, pastoral and mental health support. We therefore believe that it is unnecessary to establish a statutory duty of care.
I turn to the issue of investigations, about which the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, is rightly concerned. As I have said, I recognise the depth of the concerns of noble Lords and their commitment to ensuring that service personnel and veterans are appropriately supported should they be subject to legal proceedings as a result of their service on overseas operations. I should like to make it clear, however, that the amendment would not lead to the prevention or limitation of investigations, or, for that matter, to the reinvestigation of allegations of wrongdoing by our personnel. As I have said in response to other amendments in relation to investigations, where the service police have reason to believe that an offence may have been committed—whether as the result of a reported allegation of a criminal offence or a civil claim for compensation which then suggests that a criminal offence may have been committed—they have a legal duty to investigate. This is the right and proper thing to do, and the passage of time does not change this duty.
As I have also previously observed, investigations can both exculpate or incriminate. It would therefore be inappropriate to seek to introduce any measures that would grant impunity to our service personnel after a certain period of time; that would effectively be a statute of limitations and I do not believe for one moment that this is what the noble Lords are seeking to do. With all due respect to the noble Lords, I strenuously reject any suggestion that service police investigations or reinvestigations have been, or are, vexatious. Investigations have to take place to determine the truth or otherwise of an allegation, and the service police are cognisant of the need to investigate as effectively and efficiently as possible.
However, investigations or reinvestigations of historical allegations are always likely to present particular challenges, including in terms of the timescale for the completion of an investigation. It is therefore entirely appropriate that we provide comprehensive support to our people when they are subject to investigations, particularly when these are many years after the events in question. This is exactly what the MoD’s policies on legal, welfare and pastoral support have been developed to provide.
I will make brief reference to the service police complaints commissioner. I draw your Lordships’ attention to the measure in the Armed Forces Bill to create a new officeholder in that role and to take powers to replicate the regime set out in Part 2 of the Police Reform Act 2002.
The issue of independent oversight was examined as part of the service justice system review, which found that a degree of independent oversight was missing, in comparison with civilian police forces, and recommended that a new niche defence body be created to deliver this. Following consideration of this recommendation, we believe that the service police should mirror the arrangements used in the civilian system, with differences only where they are considered necessary to take account of the service context.
This will allow us to put in place a system to deal with complaints and other serious matters relating to the service police, modelled on the one in place for civilian police in England and Wales. Under the new regime, anyone will be able to make a complaint, so long as they have been adversely affected by the matter complained about. I hope that this provides additional reassurance to the noble and gallant Lords in respect of the conduct of investigations by the service police.
I move on to the issue of unintended consequences, an area where I detect already that there is not an agreed analysis or conclusion. The Government are concerned that this amendment could result in unintended and undesirable consequences. Whether an individual wants or needs pastoral, welfare and mental health support is a personal issue. A statutory duty of care standard could, if not very carefully drafted, end up as a one-size-fits-all approach not flexible enough to cope with the needs and wishes of individuals. It could even engender an approach whereby support is provided only in accordance with the standard, which might leave personnel without the right support at the right time for them.
Additionally, we are deeply concerned about the potentially negative effect of this amendment if it is included in this legislation. In our opinion, it is clear that it is likely to lead to an increase in litigation, which will also mean more of our people being subject to potentially lengthy and stressful court proceedings, which is profoundly undesirable and certainly contrary to the objectives of the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, said that the MoD should be prepared to meet valid claims and do the right thing by its Armed Forces personnel. I agree: it should, and it does. However, a lawyer’s paradise could be accidentally created by this amendment because notions of pastoral and moral duties are very difficult to define adequately, and there is a real risk that attempting to do would lead to more, rather than less, litigation and greater uncertainty.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, feels that that is not a risk, while my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern considered that the Written Ministerial Statement provided clear evidence of wide-ranging support for the discharge of the duty of care. The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, clearly has anxieties about the reach of human rights law, unless the Human Rights Act is amended. He therefore feels that this amendment is purely decorative. I illustrate these differing views merely to say that it would be bold to assume that there is one categoric view that is absolutely correct —we have to be cautious.
Over the last few decades, successive Governments of different political hues have been in office, and none have seen fit to do this. It may be that difficulties were acknowledged in relation to how you adequately draft and frame a duty of care so clearly articulated that there can be no ambiguity or doubt about how far it is intended to reach.
There is another area of concern. As investigations and allegations often arise in the operational theatre involving the commanding officer, the Royal Military Police and service personnel, this amendment could have other unintended consequences. These might impact on the operational theatre and, again, lead to an increase in litigation.
The concern that this provision could impact the doctrine of combat immunity—which excludes civil liability in combat circumstances—is implicitly acknowledged by noble and gallant Lords who have sought to exclude this possibility by virtue of subsection (8) of the amendment. I can add only that we are uncertain as to how the proposed duty of care would operate in the theatre of combat. Again, I think we should be very wary of the possible unintended consequences of the innovatory creation of such a statutory duty.
Finally, there was a question as to whether this Bill was the correct or best forum for wider discussions about the duty of care owed to service personnel. The Armed Forces Bill, which was introduced into the other place on 26 January 2021, will further incorporate the Armed Forces covenant into legislation. That Bill is a more appropriate mechanism for any discussion of the wider duty of care owed to our people.
Turning to the suggested reporting requirement, I am happy to reassure your Lordships that, in the context of many of the areas listed in this amendment, we already publish a comprehensive annual report on the Armed Forces covenant. There is already a well-established process through which service personnel can make complaints. The Service Complaints Ombudsman reports annually to Parliament on this. We continually review these policies and processes to ensure that they provide the best support and care possible for our personnel.
We are clear about 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 that setting a standard for a duty of care in the Bill is necessary, nor does it per se require an annual report to Parliament.
In the light of the further information I have made available about these important issues, if the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, wishes to pursue this further, I ask him to look at the Armed Forces Bill as an appropriate conduit or forum for these discussions. In these circumstances, I urge him to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken this evening. I was going to say that it was a short debate but it was a proper-size debate, getting at a number of these issues. I thank the Minister for her thoughtful and comprehensive reply to the points raised and for addressing Amendment 14. She is right that in some ways there is no more than a cigarette paper between us. In my opening remarks, I said that I was pretty clear that we shared a common objective. The current area of disagreement is over how we march towards achieving success on this common objective.
Amendment 14 is about establishing a duty of care standard. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, for referring to this as a vital amendment. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, also indicated the support of the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party. If we believe that we have a common objective in doing the right thing by our serving and veteran personnel, then I fail to see why clearly setting out a duty of care is causing so much difficulty for the Ministry of Defence.
In Committee, there was some discussion about whether this was the right Bill to address these issues. Many of us argued that, if we were to lose this Bill, it could be quite some time before there was another Bill that could address them. I argue strongly that we should maintain this Bill on its passage through Parliament.
My noble and gallant friend Lord Houghton referred to the recent integrated review and the questions quite rightly thrown up about future warfare and the conduct of servicepeople within it. Undoubtedly, he is right to make reference to that. But I feel his comments and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, could be taken a step further to argue that we should kill this Bill and hope for another one that could better achieve the objective, which would be a reasonable argument. But as far as I am concerned, it is capped by the argument that we have a Bill and that we should make the best of it and try and achieve what we can in terms of a better duty of care to our people.
The noble Lord, Lord Faulks—one of the few speakers who did not speak in a content manner about any of the amendments that have been lodged and discussed this afternoon, for which I congratulate his courage—did make a reference that he thought this was a probing amendment. Yes, to an extent, it is a probing amendment, and when you probe, and find weakness, you are minded to attack, which is why I recognise the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, when he referred to the 120 years of service of the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Stirrup and Lord Boyce, and myself, each former heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force. But if you are going to mount an attack, it best comes when there is some leadership to force the issue. That is what we are going to do this evening.
The noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, made reasonable reference to the fact that the Armed Forces Bill going through Parliament might be a better mechanism for taking these issues forward. She may well be right, but we are currently debating amendments to the overseas operations Bill, and subsequently we will be discussing the Armed Forces Bill.
Because I believe passionately that we should be standing up for our servicepeople and veterans, I believe we should be setting out a clear duty of care. Many of the things I would expect to see in that duty of care are not novel; many of them are swept up in the issues being discussed in this Bill, not least Amendment 6, which we debated successfully this afternoon. In a sense, that duty of care will be an amalgamation—a compendium, if you like—of things a caring employer should gather together in the best interests of its employees.
Finally, there has been some reference to Northern Ireland. In an ideal world, this duty of care would not just extend to operations overseas but address some of the issues relating to Northern Ireland, which for many people are still extraordinarily sore.
For all these reasons, I wish to test the opinion of the House. I believe passionately that we should set out a duty of care and, should we not succeed in establishing such a duty of care through the passage of this Bill, I am confident that my colleagues and I will return to these issues in the context of the Armed Forces Bill when it comes to your Lordships' House. I wish to test the opinion of the House on Amendment 14.
Clause 13: Power to make consequential provision
Amendment 15 not moved.
Clause 14: Extent
Amendments 16 and 17 not moved.
Clause 15: Commencement and application
Amendments 18 and 19 not moved.
My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 20. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.
Schedule 1: Excluded offences for the purposes of section 6
20: Schedule 1, page 12, line 7, leave out “this Part of this Schedule” and insert “paragraphs 2 to 13”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment clarifies the scope of paragraph 14.
My Lords, we come to what some might argue is the least thrilling and interesting part of Report stage, but I hope I can conclude our proceedings on Report with something slightly positive and welcome.
These amendments are minor and technical. They are being brought forward to improve the drafting of the Bill. Amendment 20 corrects the scope of paragraph 14 of Schedule 1 so that it refers only to the offences listed in paragraphs 2 to 13 of Schedule 1 and not to Section 42 of the Armed Forces Act 2006. This is not required because Section 42 does not create any new offences in addition to those listed.
Amendments 23 and 25 correct errors in the Bill and omit paragraphs 23 and 30 of Schedule 1 because neither is necessary. Paragraph 23 is unnecessary because Section 65 of the International Criminal Court Act 2001—referred to in paragraph 23—does not establish an offence separate from those already mentioned in paragraphs 17 to 22 of Schedule 1 to the Bill. Similarly, paragraph 30 is unnecessary because Section 5 of the International Criminal Court (Scotland) Act 2001—referred to in paragraph 30—does not establish an offence separate from those already mentioned in paragraphs 27 to 29 of Schedule 1 to the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, this might be the shortest intervention of the evening. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for saying that there are errors in the Bill and removing the relevant paragraphs. I do not think anybody will be too sad to lose certain paragraphs from this Bill. There may be clauses that we would have preferred to lose, but I do not think that there will be any objections from these Benches.
Amendment 20 agreed.
Amendments 21 and 22 not moved.
23: Schedule 1, page 13, line 28, leave out paragraph 23
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment corrects an error in the Bill. The provision omitted by this amendment is unnecessary because section 65 of the International Criminal Court Act 2001 does not establish an offence separate from those already mentioned in paragraphs 17 to 22 of Schedule 1 to the Bill.
Amendment 23 agreed.
Amendment 24 not moved.
25: Schedule 1, page 14, line 24, leave out paragraph 30
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment corrects an error in the Bill. The provision omitted by this amendment is unnecessary because section 5 of the International Criminal Court (Scotland) Act 2001 does not establish an offence separate from those already mentioned in paragraphs 27 to 29 of Schedule 1.
Amendment 25 agreed.
Amendments 26 to 29 not moved.
Schedule 4: Limitation periods: Northern Ireland
Amendment 30 not moved.
House adjourned at 8.06 pm.