[Relevant documents: Seventeenth Report of the Defence Committee, Session 2017-19, Drawing a line: Protecting veterans by a Statute of Limitations, HC 1224, and the Government Response, Second Special Report of the Committee Session 2019-21, HC 325; Oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 22 April 2020 on introductory Session with the Defence Secretary, HC 295, and on 7 July 2020 on work of the Chief of the Defence Staff, HC 594; Defence Committee correspondence with the Defence Secretary in relation to the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, dated 6 May and 14 July 2020, and the Department’s reply dated 18 September 2020.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The men and women of our armed forces are some of the most professional and capable people this country has. They risk their lives to keep us safe, uphold our values and support society whenever the call comes. I know the exceptional and often dangerous tasks that we ask them to do, and the war memorials sadly record the price of that sacrifice that they sometimes have to make. Our support for them should not be confined to the occasional act of remembrance, but should be real and should recognise the things that they do in our name.
In 2004, Phil Shiner, a lawyer, went fishing. He fished for stories, he fished for victims and he fished for terrorists. Phil Shiner and his company, Public Interest Lawyers, fished for people from whom he could make money and to accuse British troops of wrongdoing. By the time Phil Shiner and his like had finished, he had dragged before the courts 1,400 judicial reviews and 234 compensation claims against hundreds of troops. Alongside him on some of those occasions was another law firm that will be, I am afraid, all too familiar to some on the Opposition Benches—Leigh Day. From 2008, firms of that type hauled industrial levels of claims before the courts—never mind the fear and worry, and the triggering of endless investigations into the men and women of our armed forces. What mattered to the ambulance chasers was the money—the legal aid income, the commissions on compensation claims.
I agree with the Secretary of State’s comments about Phil Shiner, but I have asked his Department for the numbers of cases—as, I understand, have representatives from the Scottish National party—but it has not produced them. The explanatory notes say that there were 900 civil claims. When is he going to produce the figures?
They are in the Library. They were published last week and this is in the impact assessment, but I am very happy to write to the right hon. Member with the clear numbers. I can tell him now that overall, 1,130 compensation claims were brought between 2003 and 2009. One hundred and eighty-eight of the 244 claims put forward by Public Interest Lawyers were struck out by the High Court, and a further 32 lapsed due to inactivity, so we could say that they were found out and justice was eventually done, yet in the meantime, our troops had to endure repeated investigations, interviews and, in some cases, prosecutions.
The system as it stands provides an all-too-easy route for lawyers to spark repeat investigations and multiple claims, too many chances to earn fees and too many chances to drag yet another soldier through a witness box or an interview. If that all fails to produce a result, and most of them do not, there is always the opportunity to use the media to drum up more business, damaging our reputation across the globe with unsubstantiated allegations.
In theory, a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan could have been involved in up to 13 investigations. The list is exhaustive: a coroner’s inquest; a commanding officer’s investigation; a service police investigation; the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, a judicial review, a service inquiry—the list goes on. Remember that in the middle of this are the men and women who risk their lives to ensure that we sleep safely in our beds.
I welcome the fact that the Bill has been brought to the House. The introduction of measures and safeguards is very important, and one reason why is the mental health and wellbeing of those who are potentially prosecuted because of things that perhaps did not happen. It is very important that the welfare of soldiers, sailors and airmen is protected, is it not?
The hon. Member makes a really important point. Under the Bill, steps must be taken to ensure that prosecutors pay due regard to the impact on soldiers and sailors of that type of further action.
We have been told that this Bill is controversial. Some have gone as far as to say that it decriminalises torture or prevents veterans from receiving compensation. Both allegations are untrue. I have to question whether those making such points have actually read the Bill in full. As the former Attorney General for Northern Ireland, John Larkin QC, has recently written:
“It is clearly wrong to say that the Bill would forbid prosecution of serious allegations of torture supported by evidence.”
The Secretary of State invokes an Attorney General for Northern Ireland, so I will invoke Northern Ireland at this point. He knows that of the 300,000 veterans who served in Northern Ireland, none can find comfort in this Bill, as it is about overseas operations. However, he also knows that on 18 March when the Bill was presented, an equal and comparable commitment was given that those who served in Northern Ireland would get equal protection. That Bill is yet to be introduced, but can he convince us this afternoon that that commitment still stands?
Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s comments, he knows that some people who are very close to the military consider the Bill to be extremely controversial. Indeed, the Financial Times today leads with a quote that it is an “international embarrassment”. Does he agree with General Nick Parker, a former commander of UK land forces, who was quoted in the Financial Times today as saying:
“We shouldn’t be treating our people as if they have special protection from prosecution…What we need to do is to investigate properly so that the ones who deserve to be prosecuted, are”?
I am going to make some progress. I know that there are lots of people down to speak in this debate and, although I am willing to give way as much as possible, I would like to make sure that other Members across the House get a chance to speak and make their points.
Let me set out what the Bill does and what it does not do. First, it ensures that, in accordance with article 6 of the European convention on human rights, every member of the armed forces and Crown servant is
“entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.”
Those are not my words, not the Government’s words, but the actual words in the ECHR itself. Note the phrase “reasonable time”. That condition runs right through this Bill.
Clauses 1 to 7 introduce new conditions on prosecution for certain offences. In particular, clause 1 sets out when the presumption against prosecution measures will apply, including the condition that the measures will apply only to alleged events that took place on overseas operations more than five years ago. Clauses 2 to 5 create new thresholds that a prosecutor is required to consider when bringing a case. That will give service personnel and veterans greater certainty that the unique pressure placed on them during overseas operations will be taken into account when decisions are made on whether to prosecute for alleged historical offences. The first threshold is that, once five years have elapsed from the date of an incident, it is to be exceptional for a prosecutor to determine that a serviceperson or veteran should be prosecuted for alleged offences on operations outside the UK.
When the Secretary of State’s Department consulted on the Bill in July last year, it suggested that there were two categories of offence that might be excluded from the Bill. One was sexual offences, and the other was torture. Sexual offences have been excluded; why has torture not been?
First, I decided that, if we look back at many examples of case law or challenges, it is clear that the debate around torture and murder has often been about the excessive use of an action in doing something that is what a soldier may or may not think is legitimate. For example, it is an act of war to go and attack a target. It is, unfortunately, an act that a soldier may have to perform, which is to use lethal force in defence. It is often a side effect or a consequence of an action that you detain people. Often, the legal debate around that has focused on whether the soldier has been excessive in that use of force. If a soldier uses an excessive amount of force in self-defence on duty, that is viewed as murder. That is where we have often seen challenges in courts around both investigations and decisions to charge.
Secondly, what is not part of war in any way at all is sexual offences. It is not a debatable point. This is not a place where it is possible to turn on a coin and argue that there is a right and a wrong. That is why I took the view that we should exclude sexual offences from schedule 1 but in the main part of the Bill cover all other offences. It is not the case that, even after five years, someone cannot be prosecuted for torture, murder or anything else. It is absolutely clear that it is still possible to prosecute, and it is our intention, should new or compelling evidence be brought forward, to prosecute for those offences. The Bill is not decriminalising torture and it is not decriminalising murder in any way at all. I mentioned earlier the view of the former Attorney General of Northern Ireland, who is himself well practised in that type of law and an expert.
I think that this is an excellent set of proposals, which the Secretary of State has thought through with great enthusiasm and common sense. It is of course right that people should be investigated fully, and prosecuted if necessary, close to the event, but we want to avoid double, treble or quadruple jeopardy by money makers who should know better than undermining the reputation of our armed forces. I thank the Secretary of State very much for getting the balance right.
I do think we are nearly there on this point, but my right hon. Friend knows that it is important, because it has been raised by some very senior members of the armed forces. I have talked to his excellent junior Minister, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, and we all want the lawfare that my right hon. Friend described, which is so outrageous, to be stopped. Mrs Thatcher brought in the Criminal Justice Act 1988, which made it clear that torture of anyone, anywhere, is a criminal offence. It would be very helpful if my right hon. Friend now made it clear, in addition to his response to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), that it is never acceptable, in any circumstance, for any act of torture to take place.
I fully agree with my right hon. Friend: torture is not an acceptable part of what any soldier or any citizen of this country should take part in. Where former Governments, of all colours, have been found not to have upheld those standards, they have either been prosecuted or faced the consequences. No one is excluding that and no one is decriminalising it.
Does the Secretary of State accept that the primary problem is not repeated prosecution, but repeated reinvestigation? The Bill does little to rule that out. With the sorts of case that he has outlined, the problem has been the innumerable investigations. They are what were so traumatic for the troops, not the tiny number of prosecutions. As the former Attorney General for Northern Ireland says:
“Nothing in the Bill limits the investigation of offences—even outside the period of five years…The Bill impliedly contemplates the possibility of multiple investigations.”
That, I am afraid, is where the Bill falls down.
First, the Bill deals with two parts of why people are often investigated. One is under civil proceedings, where they are investigated or interviewed, or involved in the inquest. Many of those personnel find themselves repeatedly interviewed, either as a suspect or, indeed, through constant summonses as a witness in an inquest. As we know from a number of cases, that has happened on multiple occasions. That is why the second part of the Bill deals with the civil route and the first part deals with the criminal bit.
On the criminal bit, one change is the requirement after five years for a number of thresholds to be gone through before a decision to prosecute is progressed. We think those thresholds are enough to make sure that investigators, or the prosecutor, before perhaps embarking on a repeat investigation—for example, if there has already been one—must have regard to the fact that this is important new evidence. In my experience, investigators do not just investigate for investigation’s sake; they investigate to reach a point of prosecution. If they feel that a prosecution is unlikely, they will not pursue it. I feel that will therefore reduce the number of investigations.
My right hon. Friend also makes the point, in regard to the critics, that the Bill does not prevent prosecution in certain circumstances of egregious crimes committed either against humanity or our treaty obligations at all. That is really important. We will never prevent new evidence from producing a prosecution if a crime has been committed.
I am now going to make progress.
The second element of the first part of the Bill ensures that, when making a decision, the prosecutor must give particular weight to certain matters, such as the adverse impact of operations on our personnel and the public interest in finality where there has been a previous investigation and there is no compelling new evidence. If it is deemed that the case should proceed to trial, the third threshold requires consent before a prosecution can proceed. In England and Wales, for example, that will be from the Attorney General. In those cases, the Attorney General will be acting independently of Government, as guardian of the public interest.
Some groups such as Liberty have suggested that this is political interference. It is nothing of the sort. Given that the Attorney General already has decisions over prosecutions in statute ranging from the Auctions (Bidding Agreements) Act 1927 to the Theatres Act 1968, it is neither uncommon nor controversial.
Of course, the Advocate General for Scotland resigned just last week. I believe it is the case that the Department consulted the Lord Advocate in the Scottish Government. It is normally the case that the Government would not publish the advice of its own lawyers, but the Lord Advocate in Scotland is not a UK Government official; he is a Scottish Government official. Will the Secretary of State publish the opinion that the Ministry of Defence received from Scotland’s Lord Advocate?
We are not going to publish his opinion or anybody else’s. We do not publish the opinion of our Attorney General. It is a long-held policy of most Governments not to publish the legal advice they receive, except in exceptional circumstances.
Part 2 of the Bill makes changes to the time limits for bringing claims in tort for personal injury or death and claims for Human Rights Act 1998 violations that occur in the context of overseas military operations. Clauses 8 to 10 introduce schedules 2, 3 and 4. Taken together, these provisions introduce new factors that the courts in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland must consider when deciding whether a claim for personal injury or death can be allowed beyond the normal limit of three years. The provisions also introduce an absolute maximum time limit of six years for such claims. These new factors ensure that operational context is properly taken into account, and they weigh up the likely impact of giving evidence on the mental health of the service personnel or veterans involved.
Clause 11 amends the Human Rights Act. This provision largely mirrors the changes that are being made for tort-based claims. It will change the rules governing the court’s discretion to extend the one-year time limit for bringing claims under the 1998 Act and will introduce an absolute maximum time limit of six years for human rights claims in relation to overseas operations. Again, critics of the Bill are trying to mislead veterans with tales that this somehow discriminates against our armed forces.
Let us put this six-year backstop into perspective. Currently, for claims in tort, where personnel may sue for personal injury in England, there is already a time limit. Mostly, that limit is three years from the date of the incident or knowledge of it. In other words, if a former soldier is diagnosed with PTSD 20 years after his service, the time limit starts then, not when the operation took place. The existence of time limits is commonplace and was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Stubbings v. the UK. The UK Human Rights Act itself has a 12-month time limit for claims from the event happening but does allow for further judicial discretion, and the armed forces compensation scheme has a seven-year time limit.
Finally, clause 12 will further amend the Human Rights Act to impose a duty to consider derogating from—that is, suspending our obligations under—the European convention on human rights in relation to significant military overseas operations. This measure does not require derogation to take place, but it does require future Governments to make a conscious decision on whether derogation should be sought in the light of the circumstances at the time. We want in future the ability, if necessary, to allow soldiers to focus on the danger and job in hand when on operations, not on whether they will have a lawsuit slapped on them when they get home.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. He knows that my views on these matters are sincere. I abhor vexatious claims against former service personnel. I have witnessed the training of armed forces on the laws of war at first hand and seen how seriously they and their commanders take it. He will be aware that derogation from that section of the ECHR is used in very rare circumstances, and it would be helpful to have more clarification on that. Many people have spoken out on the Bill, including a former Chief of the Defence Staff, a former Commander Land Forces, former Conservative Defence Secretaries and Attorneys General, and learned and gallant Members on both sides of the House. Does he accept that they are expressing those concerns sincerely? I urge him to listen to them as the Bill goes into Committee.
I certainly recognise that people have concerns. Some of those people were doing the job that I am doing when these things were going on, so I would venture to ask them why they did not do anything about it at the time. It is a fact that there has been abuse of this system; we all know that on both sides of the House. It is a fact that we need to do more, rather than just talking about it, for our veterans. It is really important to include measures to recognise the unique experiences of and pressures put on the men and women of our armed forces when they go on operations hundreds of miles away.
I want to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty)—I am glad to see him wearing his Royal College of Defence Studies tie; there are quite a lot of military ties in the Chamber today—about the application of the ECHR. The derogation that we are asking for and that the Bill recommends is not new; it was included in the initial treaty when it was signed in the ’50s, and other countries have already used it. We are talking about recognising the provisions of a treaty that we signed in order to allow the military to act in a military way, because this treaty was written by people who had fought in the second world war and knew exactly what they were talking about.
My hon. Friend makes a substantive point, and one reason we find ourselves facing these challenges is the fact that there is a clear conflict between international humanitarian law in some areas, and international human rights. The encroachment and growing reach of the ECHR into areas of combat has created a clash, in some sense, between things such as the Geneva convention and individual human rights. That is why when the authors wrote the ECHR, they included some of those carve-outs as a way of accommodating the international laws under which they had been operating in the mass conflict of the second world war. Indeed, when the Defence Committee was chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), it picked up on that very real clash, which is hard to resolve. In my view, one of the problems with lawfare is that people are exploiting that clash for financial gain. It is easy to hide behind a humanitarian law on one day and a human rights law on another, and we have a duty to try to make a difference.
We are not going as far as many countries under the jurisdiction of the ECHR. Other countries in Europe have a statute of limitations on criminal offences. Germany and France both have a number of criminal statutes that are statutes of limitations. Other countries also do that, or have amnesties, but we are not going that far. We are trying to resolve that clash and see how we can ensure a proper threshold, so that there are no vexatious investigations and our men and women do not constantly find themselves the subject of them.
Surely, the debate of the past five or 10 minutes has exposed the truth of this matter, which is that it is easy to build consensus in the House on provisions relating to civil actions—there is very little exception to that. However, may I take the Secretary of State back to the answer he gave the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell)? He is right in what he says about torture, but the logic of his argument is that torture should be listed in the first schedule to the Bill. He is right to put sexual offences in that schedule because, as the Government says, there are no circumstances in which sexual offences can be tolerated in war, but the logic of not including torture suggests that there are some circumstances in which torture is accepted. That is the logic. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what those circumstances are?
Well, he should be. Only a solicitor would argue the toss between a barrister and a solicitor; to us mere soldiers, they are learned gentlemen or women in this context. I am afraid that he is absolutely wrong in his assertion. Nowhere does the Bill prevent a prosecution for torture either under five years or over five years. If he can show me where in the Bill there is a decriminalisation or tolerance of torture, I would be delighted to hear which clause or subsection decriminalises torture. Will he show me the statute?
The exclusion of torture from schedule 1 raises the inference for any court that—and this is a matter of logic, not of law—there are circumstances in which torture is acceptable. All the Secretary of State needs to do is include torture in schedule 1, and the Bill would have no difficulty.
Obviously not, because murder is dealt with by the common law of this country. The Secretary of State is perfectly aware that such a case could still be brought under the exceptional circumstances provisions. The problem he has is that there is no such thing as unexceptional torture.
I will crack on. The House has heard the point from the Liberal Democrat spokesman. I venture that I will side with the former Attorney General for Northern Ireland on his views regarding whether this provision does or does not prevent torture. I think his judgment of the law is pretty succinct, although I have not always agreed with his views. [Interruption.] I shall carry on.
In conclusion, the Bill is about doing the right thing by our troops. Our soldiers and values must uphold the highest international standards. The Bill is not an amnesty, a statute of limitation, or the decriminalisation of erroneous acts. We will continue to protect the independence of our prosecutors and our service police, and we will investigate and, if necessary, prosecute service personnel who break the law. But what we will not accept is the vexatious hounding of veterans and our armed forces by ambulance-chasing lawyers motivated not by the search for justice, but by their own crude financial enrichment.
This House should reflect on how lawfare has ranged way out of control. All too often, the victims have been the very people who risked life and limb to keep us safe. The Bill is a measured step, making provision for the unique circumstances in which our troops find themselves on operations overseas. I commend the Bill to the House.
I remind colleagues that many right hon. and hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate, so Back-Bench contributions will be limited to five minutes to start with. We will have to review the limit as we go to allow as many people as possible to participate.
I start by also paying tribute to the role, dedication and work of our armed forces. They face exceptional risks, give exceptional service and require exceptional skills. As we face as a nation a second covid crisis, they are likely to be called on again, more heavily, including overseas.
I am pleased that we have come to the Commons debate on this legislation. I thank the Secretary of State for the way he introduced the Bill. The first duty of any Government is to protect the nation and its citizens, and the first duty of any Defence Secretary is to protect the men and women who dedicate themselves to the service of their country. We have our own British way of doing this. Since the days of Churchill and Attlee, when Britain led the global efforts to establish the rules-based international order after the second world war, we have been the champions of democracy, freedom and universal human rights. Our British forces uphold, unequivocally, international law and conventions. By adhering to the highest standards of legal military conduct ourselves, we can hold other countries to account when their forces fall short. The Bill calls into question Britain’s proud commitment to the Geneva convention, our duty as a “permanent five” member of the United Nations to uphold international law, and our moral authority to require the conduct of other nations to meet the standards set by those international conventions.
Since the end of the 2000s, all parties in this House have upheld a strong commitment to the armed forces covenant, which declares that those from the armed forces and their families
“should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services.”
The Bill breaches that covenant by denying troops who serve overseas the same employer liability rights as are held by the UK civilians they defend. Our aim with this Bill is, first, to protect British troops and their right to justice from the MOD, and secondly, to protect Britain’s reputation as a force for good in the world, upholding human rights and the rules-based international order. We will work to help forge a constructive consensus through the Commons and the Lords for the changes necessary to achieve that aim.
The right hon. Gentleman must recognise—I am sure he knows this well, having spoken to his opposite numbers in socialist or left-wing parties around Europe—that many other countries follow this system of derogation and have national caveats. France itself has a reserve of emergency powers it can use to defend its troops against vexatious or inappropriate litigation. Is he seriously suggesting that France is not a law-based state, or that it is in some way immoral and has no right to sit as one of the P5? Surely he is not suggesting that.
No, I am very clear that we want to and must protect our British troops against vexatious claims and repeat investigations. Important parts of the Bill are wrong; we can get them right, and that is what I want to do. There has been a problem—I get that—arising especially from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the Secretary of State said. The al-Sweady inquiry chairman, when he finally cleared the troops in 2014, spoke forcefully of the “most serious allegations”—of murder and mutilation—that
“have been hanging over these soldiers for the past 10 years”.
The family of an Iraqi boy, Ahmed Jabbar Kareem Ali, who drowned in a canal in 2003 with British soldiers directly implicated, had to wait until the Newman inquiry reported in 2016 before they got the truth and the MOD issued a full apology.
Long-running litigation, repeat investigations and judicial reviews are indeed the signs of a flawed system—a system that has failed British troops and failed victims under successive Governments. I get this problem, and it must be fixed, but it is important to see it in perspective, not least so that we can see clearly the problem that we are legislating in the Bill to fix.
My right hon. Friend was touching on an important point that Members on the Government Benches have touched on as well. The problem is, as it stands, the long investigations and the repeated investigations that allow double jeopardy not via the courts, but by intimidation of investigation. The Bill does nothing whatever to deal with some of those issues. Is that not a reason for the Government to go away and rewrite parts of the Bill or even issue proper investigatory guidelines to stop that kind of thing happening?
I sincerely trust that the Government will rethink and will be prepared to rewrite parts of the Bill. If they do so, I think they will find broad consensus for some of the changes that could be made to the Bill to help protect our troops and protect Britain’s reputation worldwide at the same time.
On that point, I have seen successive Governments overlook the armed forces, having been one of those people thrown on the pile to fend for myself. This Bill is a massive step forward for any veteran who has served on the frontlines. We are playing politics with this issue, and I plead for all Members to put that aside and focus on the massive step this Bill is for our armed forces.
On that point, the right hon. Gentleman is right about the armed forces covenant and the ability of members of the armed forces community to bring a claim for injury or death after six years. There is some concern about the unique deviation from the Limitation Act 1980 in the Bill that will place members of the armed forces community at a disadvantage compared with civilians. After six years, civilians can register a civil claim, whereas soldiers and Army, Navy and RAF personnel cannot.
In his typical way, the hon. Member puts his finger on an important point. He understates his argument, as there is more than just some concern; there are, for instance, according to the Royal British Legion, very clear grounds for concern that the provision breaches the armed forces covenant, and I will come on to that point.
Let me deal with getting this problem, which does exist and must be fixed, in a proper perspective. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) was absolutely right about how hard it is to get hard, clear information out of the Government. Over recent months, I have had to prise figures out of the MOD. There is a deep resistance to releasing full, open information. The first important figures to give a broad perspective are these: over the past 15 years, there have been 25 cases brought by injured British troops against the MOD for every one case brought by alleged victims against our troops. You can see why, Madam Deputy Speaker, some of the veterans I have talked to about this Bill reckon it is more about protecting the MOD than it is about protecting troops. Britain deployed 140,000 troops to Iraq over six years. The Government cite—the Secretary of State did so today—1,000 civil claims, all against the MOD, not individual service personnel, as evidence for the Bill to end vexatious legal claims. One third of those cases—330—have had the MOD pay compensation. Clearly they were not vexatious, as the MOD rightly insists on only settling cases in which it accepts liability. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State says, “No, we don’t,” but if he looks at the annual report on the cases that the Department publishes and takes, he will see exactly that commitment and clarification. It does not have the power to settle claims where it judges that it would not be found liable in a court. However, one fifth of the cases—217—have been withdrawn or struck out. They may well have been vexatious cases—they were certainly baseless. They may have taken too long, but the system, even as it stands, has dealt with them.
Two fifths of the cases—414—are ongoing, according to the MOD, although that definition could mean that those cases are settled and the MOD has agreed to pay compensation, but there may still be outstanding arguments over legal costs. Those cases may again be long-running, but they are hardly vexatious if they have not been struck out by now.
On the criminal side, the Government cite 3,400 allegations. The Secretary of State referred to the Iraq Historic Allegations Team that looked into them. Despite deep flaws in that investigation, 70% were ruled out as there was no case to answer or no proportionate grounds for a criminal investigation. In other words, those allegations did not warrant a full investigation so got nowhere near the point of decision about prosecution. They would have been wholly unaffected by the Bill if the measure had been in place because, as the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said, it does not deal with investigations—as it should—but only with prosecutorial decisions and process. By the way, just seven prosecutions have been brought against British soldiers from the remaining allegations and investigations, and all but one have now been dropped.
On Afghanistan and criminal cases, the Operation Northmoor investigation in 2014 examined 675 criminal allegations from 159 people. The investigation closed and no charges have followed. Indeed, the investigation concluded a year before the MOD confirmed in public in June that it had closed.
On judicial review, the Government have cited 1,400 JRs of civil and criminal Iraq and Afghanistan cases as justification for the Bill. I can only find evidence that two judicial reviews are continuing. The court gave the MOD permission to strike many of the others out three years ago. Yet in April, the Minister for Defence, People and Veterans told me in answer to a written parliamentary question, the MOD had still only notified fewer than half the complainants—630—of the court’s decision not to take the investigations further.
To put the matter in perspective, certainly some vexatious claims have been lodged and the current system has taken too long to weed them out, but the bigger, more serious, more consistent problems lie in the system of investigations, which lacks speed, soundness, openness and a duty of care to alleged victims and to the forces personnel who may be in the frame. Those are the problems, which occur well before the point of decision about prosecution—the point at which the Bill starts to operate. They are what the Bill should and can deal with. Our aim during its passage through Parliament is to help to ensure that it does.
To pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson), I must confess that when I first looked at the Bill, I thought that it was designed to draw a line under the cases still caught up in the problem of so-called lawfare. The first paragraph of the explanatory notes gives the same misleading impression. It says:
“This Bill aims to provide greater certainty for Service personnel and veterans in relation to vexatious claims and prosecution of historical events, that occurred in the uniquely complex environment of armed conflict overseas.”
But this legislation will have no impact on any past or any continuing cases, and clause 15 on commencement makes that clear, so it offers no hope and no help of faster resolution either for the troops or for the alleged victims, who may still be involved in long-running litigation or in repeat investigations. I want to make sure that no one in this House and, much more importantly, in the armed forces and the veterans community is misled by what they may have heard or may have understood before now.
Similarly, nothing in this Bill applies to Northern Ireland, despite the same commitment in the Conservative manifesto, similar concerns on the Government side about drawing a line for British troops who served in Northern Ireland, and the Secretary of State’s letter to all MPs last week in which he confirmed his eagerness
“to ensure also the equivalent protections of our veterans who served in Northern Ireland.”
The Secretary of State’s speech looked back, but we now legislate for the future. The Bill is not a framework fit for the future point when Britain must again commit its forces to armed conflict overseas. The Government have got important parts of the Bill badly wrong, and I want to see Ministers work with all parties in both Houses and with groups beyond Parliament who have expertise to offer on this—from the British Legion to Liberty—to get this legislation right.
There are problems. The Bill is silent on the command responsibility and the role of commanders in some of these cases. There is a problem, I think, with the Attorney General’s consent, as it risks political factors coming into prosecutorial decisions. There is nothing on the disclosure rights, responsibilities and duties of the MOD.
I agree with many of the points the shadow Secretary of State has made during his very valid contribution. Does he agree that one of the fundamental weaknesses with the Bill was put forward by the UK’s most senior military judge, who has argued that the consequence of the legislation is that UK military personnel are more likely to find themselves in front of the International Criminal Court?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for conceding that I am making some valid points. His point is certainly valid, and it will be a point of central argument, probably in the debate today, but certainly as the Bill passes through both Houses.
Let me summarise our biggest concerns about the Bill. Part 1, as the Secretary of State said, introduces what the Government have called their triple lock to make prosecutions for the most serious crimes harder. The presumption against prosecution for all crimes except sexual violence clearly creates the risk that the very gravest crimes, including torture and other war crimes, will go unpunished if an incident does not come to light for five years or if the investigations are drawn out beyond that deadline.
My right hon. Friend is making an extremely constructive and compelling speech, and I hope that all Members on both sides will listen to what he is saying. On that specific point about torture, may I commend to him the article by our hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who has very clearly set out today the objection he has, as I do, to vexatious claims and vexatious investigations? He is also very clear that the prohibition on torture is absolute: there are no exceptions. We as a country are a signatory to a whole series of international conventions on that very issue, and the derogations we talked about under the European convention make it very clear that we have to comply with those international obligations.
The changes will give protections that are fit for the future. They will give protections that are required, and they will avoid parts of the Bill that at the moment put at a disadvantage in a unique fashion those British troops who serve overseas, which is why we argue that it breaches the armed forces covenant.
To come back to the presumption against prosecution, in the explanatory notes the Government maintain:
“Nothing in this Bill will stop those guilty of committing serious criminal acts from being prosecuted.”
That is a point the Secretary of State made, but many legal experts disagree and say that the Bill, as it intends, will be a significant barrier to justice. The Law Society’s briefing on this debate says:
“The Bill creates…a limitation period for a select group of persons in specific circumstances, i.e. armed forces personnel alleged to have committed offences overseas.”
Alongside the extra factors for prosecutors to take into account and the requirement for the Attorney General to give the go-ahead for such prosecutions, that clearly risks breaching the Geneva convention, the convention against torture, the Rome statute, the European convention on human rights and other long-standing international legal obligations. Where the UK is unable or unwilling to prosecute, the International Criminal Court may well act. So rather than providing relief for the troops accused, the Bill also risks British service personnel being dragged to The Hague, the court of Milošević and Gaddafi, instead of being dealt with in our own British justice system.
Let us just step back a moment from the technical detail. This is the Government of Great Britain bringing in a legal presumption against prosecution for torture, for war crimes and for crimes against humanity. This is the Government of Great Britain saying sexual crimes are so serious they will be excluded from this presumption, but placing crimes outlawed by the Geneva convention on a less serious level and downgrading the unequivocal commitment to upholding international law that we in Britain ourselves, after the second world war, helped to establish.
What is appalling is the straw man being put up time and again by a Labour party half-funded by these ambulance-chasing lawyers. That is going to damage our reputation. No apology for the money they took from a number of them—no apology whatever. What we should recognise is that many of—[Interruption.]
Much of the mess we are having to come and clean up today is because of your illegal wars, your events in the past and the way you have run the safety of our forces. To put up straw men and make wild allegations that are wholly inaccurate, and disputed by people much more learned than the right hon. Gentleman, does a disservice to our troops and is all about making an excuse for not supporting the Bill. We will see tonight whether or not he supports the Bill.
That is not worthy of the office of the Secretary of State for Defence. We are dealing with matters of torture, war crimes, MOD negligence, compensation for injured troops and compensation for the families who have lost their loved ones overseas. This is too important for party politics. It should be beneath the Secretary of State to reduce this to party politics. We on the Labour Benches will work with the Government to get the Bill right.
This is embarrassing.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The facts of the Bill are that it places torture and other war crimes on a different level to crimes of sexual violence. That is not embarrassing; that is unconscionable for a country with a proud record of upholding unequivocally the international conventions that we helped to draw up.
No, I will not at this point.
Ministers must think again. No wonder the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, says that the Bill as it stands would be a stain on Britain’s standing in the world. Ministers must think again. They must remove torture and other war crimes from the Bill. There are better ways of protecting our troops and Britain’s good name.
Part 2 creates a higher hurdle for civil cases after three years, as the Secretary of State said, with extra factors that a prosecutor must take into account, and a hard block on any case after six years. For British troops serving overseas with claims to make against the MOD, that does breach the armed forces covenant—a point that I made to the Secretary of State early in the summer, reinforced today by the Royal British Legion in its briefing for this debate, which says that in removing “the ability of members of the armed forces community to bring a claim for injury or death after six years, the Government will create a unique deviation from the Limitation Act 1980.” Part 2 denies those who serve our country overseas the same employer liability rights as the rest of us enjoy at home. It creates circumstances that allow the MOD to avoid claims when it fails properly to equip our troops or makes serious errors that lead to the death or injury of British troops overseas.
It is plain wrong that those who put their lives on the line for Britain overseas should have less access to compensation than the UK civilians they defend, and, since 2007, there have been at least 195 cases of troops who would have been caught by the Bill. Ministers have tried to play that down by saying that the clock on that deadline starts only at the point of diagnosis, but that is misleading because diagnosis is not in the Bill and the point of knowledge is in the Bill. That is another important provision that we must put right.
We believe, and I believe strongly, despite what the Minister for Defence People and Veterans is chuntering under his breath, that the Government, Labour and the armed forces ultimately all want the same thing: we want to protect British troops and we want to protect British values, and that should not be merely a matter of party politics.
I say to the Secretary of State that during the Bill’s passage through Parliament, we want to help forge a constructive consensus on the changes needed to overhaul investigations, to set up safeguards against vexatious claims that are entirely consistent with our international obligations, and to guarantee troops the right to compensation claims when MOD failures lead to the death or injury of our forces overseas. It is not too late for Ministers to think again about the best way to protect service personnel from vexatious litigation while ensuring that those who do commit serious crimes during operations are properly prosecuted and punished. As the Bill begins its passage through Parliament, I urge the Secretary of State and his Minister to work with us to ensure that it does just that.
Order. The House will be aware that a great many people would like to speak this afternoon—far more than the number of people who are currently able to be in the Chamber. We have a waiting list. We therefore start with an immediate time limit of five minutes.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wish to make a declaration of interests: I am a current member of the armed forces, and I did serve in Northern Ireland.
I very much welcome and support the Bill, which is a step in the right direction. We do not seem to have many opportunities to praise the armed forces; there are not enough relevant debates in this place. I am pleased that so many Members are speaking here today.
I join Members on both Front Benches in paying tribute to our entire armed forces community. They help define what this nation believes in and stands for. The versatility of our armed forces is reflected not only in times of conflict, but also when there are needs and challenges closer to home. I am pleased to see the Prime Minister instigate Operation Temperer, inviting the armed forces to support our constabularies. We will not be seeing the 4th Battalion the Rifles Regiment enforcing last orders at the Dog and Duck just yet, but we look forward to their supporting us as we tackle the pandemic.
The UK’s armed forces are volunteer forces. The gene pool from which we recruit is society itself, and we want the best and brightest to step forward and join the ranks of all three services. For that to be successful, we must not only train, equip and house them well, but provide the best possible care for the injured, for the bereaved, and also when members of the armed forces finally retire and rejoin our civilian society.
I turn to the Bill itself, the billing of which has been quite something, promising to end the vexatious witch hunts that have plagued service personnel who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland. I began by saying that that was a step in the right direction, and that is absolutely the case.
This issue was first raised back in 2013 by the former Defence Committee Chair, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). We have had the Iraq Historic Allegations Team put together by the MOD to deal with this matter, and we have also had consultation by the Government to see how we should move forward. One thing our soldiers are good at is smelling a rat. You learn that pretty fast when you are in the military. Do not attempt to try to bluff them: they will see you out, whether you call it political spin or otherwise. Let us be upfront, no matter how brutal the truth is, on what is the way forward and what we achieve here today. I politely ask the Government to follow this practice and not to over-promise.
Let us be honest: this Bill, as it currently stands, will not help any veterans who are currently under investigation. It is not retrospective, and it will not help anybody who served in Northern Ireland, as my Defence Committee colleague, the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), said. It focuses on supporting those currently in uniform. However, it provides greater certainty, we hope, for service personnel in relation to crimes that may be committed in future to ensure that they are properly prosecuted. We understand that those who serve our country are not above the law—far from it—but we do ask those who stand in harm’s way on our behalf to do something quite extraordinary in making the toughest of decisions about the utility of lethal force. We cannot have any commander hesitate in carrying out his or her legitimate orders, and we cannot have any soldier hesitate in the heat of battle.
How did we get here? There seems to be a clash between international humanitarian law traditionally governing armed conflicts and human rights law, which is increasingly now applied in armed conflict situations— exactly what Phil Shiner choose to exploit. I ask the Secretary of State to clarify when the Northern Ireland legislation will come through. In choosing the last resort of war, we must follow, and be seen to follow, the rules of international law. If any British armed forces personnel ever fail to uphold these standards, it is entirely appropriate that their actions—potential war crimes—are properly and fairly investigated.
We are immensely proud of our armed forces. They may leave active duty, but they never leave the armed forces community. We must watch their backs if we are to ensure that the next generation of warriors step on to the parade square and wear their uniform with pride. I am pleased that this Bill is, in that sense, a step in the right direction.
I, like others, pay tribute to the armed forces, not least for the work they have done during the coronavirus crisis, particularly in erecting the extraordinary construction of the NHS Louisa Jordan Hospital in my own home city of Glasgow. I know they have done much in Members’ constituencies all across the UK, and I am sure we will expect more of them in the times to come.
I acknowledge at the outset of my remarks—this will probably be the only bit that pleases Ministers and Conservative Members—the sincerity with which Ministers have approached this, in that they recognise the problem and sincerely wish to fix it. Indeed, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans was a jolly advocate for getting this done way before he became a Minister, and I think I am right in saying that the Secretary of State himself was raising this when he was a Member of the Scottish Parliament in the first Parliament of 1999. I acknowledge their long-standing desire to fix these issues, but I am afraid I do not believe that this Bill does it.
Those who risk their lives for their country do so in some of the most unimaginable circumstances. There are gallant Members here who have gone through that. I certainly have not. Far from home, they are often surrounded by danger at the behest of this Parliament, and they have to make split-second decisions in circumstances that, as I say, I cannot imagine. Sometimes those decisions are wrong, and when they are wrong, there needs to be a means by which that can be righted and justice can be done. Sometimes many years later these incidents rear their heads in the form of legal claims that force claimants and former service personnel to relive some of those dark days in a search for answers, but no one, least of all service personnel and veterans of the armed forces, deserves to be accused of a crime that they did not commit, and far less to be harassed by investigation after investigation. As the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee and former Chairman of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has said, the Bill does not achieve that.
The Secretary of State has mentioned Phil Shiner, and other firms have also sought to cash in on this kind of behaviour. I do not deny that they have done so, and they are to be deprecated for it. Indeed, I believe that they are deprecated on all sides of the House. However, this legislation is not the way to deal with this. It is using the proverbial sledgehammer to crack a nut. I accept that the nut is deeply problematic, but I have to say that this looks like a Bill designed more to protect the Government, and in particular the Ministry of Defence, than anyone who dons a uniform. Indeed, it was the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, who we will hear from at the end of the debate, who said that
“one of the biggest problems…was the military’s inability to investigate itself properly and the standard of those investigations…If those investigations were done properly and self-regulation had occurred, we probably wouldn’t be here today”.
The Bill makes no provision whatsoever for an independent investigative body or for reporting accountability mechanisms of the kind that would help to address the historical claims that I believe we all want to address. We are asked to hope by the Government, and to trust and believe that a real solution will come later, after we vote to undermine international law and the rules that keep us safe. That is a promise that seems to be being made with increasing regularity from the Government Benches. That is why I believe that this Bill is bad, not just for our rules and laws but for the armed forces as well.
If we can agree with the Minister for Veterans, as I do, that the investigations process in the Ministry of Defence is flawed and needs fixing, let us bring forward a Bill to do that. If that does not require legislation, let us bring forward those proposals. Let us have that discussion first. Passing the Bill in this form or a form close to it would be to put the cart before the horse. If the Government truly want to protect the UK armed forces from legacy allegations of war crimes, they must create mechanisms for allegations, both contemporaneous and historical, to be properly addressed by independent investigators. I am horrified, as I am sure other legal minds in this place, the other place and outside Parliament will be, at the extraordinary powers that the Bill invests in the Attorney General, who is not an independent Law Officer of the Government, but a political appointment and part of the Government.
We believe that the ways I have just outlined are the ways to ensure that we can deal with this properly, but instead, the Government have offered a Bill today that does not help the victims of these cases—by which I mean service personnel, veterans and their families—who feel that the courts are their only recourse to justice. I would argue, as do other Members, that this exposes UK forces more to the International Criminal Court. And I can tell the House what will happen then: Tory Back Bencher after Tory Back Bencher will be on their feet complaining about foreign judges intervening in UK justice. How long would it then be before someone made it mainstream within the Conservative party that the United Kingdom should withdraw from the ICC? I can see the start of a very slippery slope indeed.
Is not part of the problem that, where suspicion exists, there requires to be an investigation, and that if that investigation produces evidence, there should be a prosecution? By putting barriers in the way of prosecution, we do no favours to those who are accused of criminal acts in the first place, because no line is ever drawn underneath it for them.
The right hon. Gentleman is correct, so I do not need to expand on that. I am conscious of your points about time, Madam Deputy Speaker, but he is correct in what he says.
I want to go through some of the senior military, legal and political opinion that has come out against the Bill. I can accept that Conservative Members, probably those on the Front Bench, think that the Opposition—if not the entirety of it, my party—are just Guardian-reading, lentil-munching sandal wearers, but that can hardly be laid at the feet of Nicholas Mercer, can it? Nicholas Mercer, the former command legal adviser during the Iraq war, has pointed out that this Bill
“undermines international humanitarian law while shielding the government”.
The Bill serves one body, and that body is the Ministry of Defence.
I can also point to some other opinion against the Bill—indeed, one of the Secretary of State’s predecessors, Sir Malcolm Rifkind. The Secretary of State has managed to unite Sir Malcolm Rifkind with the Scottish National party, and he was a leading nat-basher-in-chief back in his day. He has said that the Bill risks
“undermining the UK’s position as a champion of the rule of law”.
That might be fashionable on the Government Benches these days, but it is something that we in the Scottish National party will not stand for.
You could also quote the former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. I hear the Government Front Bench often praying in aid the Attorney General for Northern Ireland. For a Bill that does not concern itself with Northern Ireland, you seem awfully keen on the Northern Irish Attorney General. As the shadow Secretary of State mentioned, we were told by the Secretary of State in a letter that he sent to all Members of the House that the Bill will be equivalent to what is brought forward in Northern Ireland. Well, good luck with that one!
We can also quote Field Marshal Lord Guthrie, although I understand he has taken some of what he said back. Again, he is hardly a lentil-munching leftie. He said:
“There can be no exceptions to our laws, and no attempts to bend them. Those who break them should be judged in court.”
He also stated:
“These proposals appear to have been dreamt up by those who have seen too little of the world to understand why the rules of war matter. If we start down the slippery slope of arguing that rules apply to others, but not to ourselves, it is we who will suffer in the end.”
I do not believe that anything I read out is what he has withdrawn. However, if I am wrong on that, I am happy to be corrected. I thought I was going to be told that he was indeed a lentil-munching Guardian reader, but clearly not.
Let me come to how the Government are approaching this. I have listened to many of the sedentary chunterings that have come from the Treasury Bench this afternoon, and I had a call with the Minister for Defence, People and Veterans yesterday—he told me that he was not the “king of good ideas”; I did not need to be told that—but all I have seen is arrogance. Any objection, whether adumbrated by people outside or inside the House—including people on his own side, by the way—is met with, “Didn’t read the Bill”, “Doesn’t understand it”, “This is embarrassing”, or “It’s this way or no way.” I am afraid that unless we can amend the Bill within an inch of its life, beyond any recognition of what appears before Members this afternoon, there is no way that my party can support the Bill in this form.
I will say this, however: if the Minister wants to get the issue solved—which I believe we both do, as I said at the start—
I will once I have completed my peroration. Scrap the Bill and let us have a discussion about the way in which the Ministry of Defence investigates these things internally. I am more than happy to engage in that discussion with the Minister and with the Secretary of State, but to be asked to vote for a Bill so roundly condemned by senior legal, military and political opinion is something that we will not contemplate.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes reasoned points and a good speech. First, he has not mentioned it yet, but he will be aware that there was something called the Lyons review, which was the service justice review that has reviewed and continues to review. We are in the middle of implementing some of its recommendations on improving on exactly the points he makes about service justice.
Secondly, before the hon. Gentleman finishes his speech, I ask him within what parameters we should work when trying to come to a consensus with the Scottish National party. For example, does he except that in cases of civil law there is a need for tort limitations? Does he accept the statute of limitations on civil pursuit—that many of those cases should have a time limit? Does he also accept the line in the relevant article of the European convention on human rights that says people are entitled to
“a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time”?
If he accepts both those parameters, perhaps we can talk.
I have not disputed any of those things. I am willing to have that conversation, but the Secretary of State has introduced a Bill that is so egregious that he makes it impossible for me to support it. Look, he has his majority so he will get it through in whatever form he wants, but if he wants to have, as we often do in defence discussions in this Parliament, a degree of consensus that most people outside this place probably do not think exists, it cannot come on the back of a Bill like this one. I understand that the review he mentioned at the start of his intervention is taking place; why not pause the Bill and let that review report first? Let Parliament debate it and then see what we can fix.
I have a lot of time for the hon. Gentleman, and recognise his allegations of how I have ridiculed some of the approaches. The reality is that we on the Government Benches have to deal with what is actually in the Bill and the reality of operations. We have a duty to these people. We have engaged both the hon. Gentleman and the shadow Secretary of State in trying to improve the Bill, and not once have you come forward with something with which I can improve the Bill. The Bill is moderate, fair and down the middle. If you are on the wrong side in the Lobbies tonight, you are clearly on the wrong side of history.
Order. I am not entering into the debate, but I shall merely say that all day today Members on both sides of the House have been using the word “you”. They have been calling the Prime Minister you and they are calling Members on each side of the House you. In this Chamber, you means the occupant of the Chair. It is really important, in order to keep the right sort of distance in an argument of this kind, that we use the phrase “the hon. Gentleman” or “the hon. Lady”, or something along those lines. Mr McDonald, you have not committed this sin.
That is because I know what I am doing, Madam Deputy Speaker, as you well know.
Let me say this to the Minister for Defence People and Veterans. We always try to find the maximum consensus, but I rather suspect that we just cannot agree on this Bill. He is not willing to change it to the degree I would like to see it changed, which in essence would mean scrapping it and letting the review come forward. When we table amendments in Committee, it will be interesting to see what they say; I am sure the Minister will be interested to read them, and it will be interesting to see how the Government approach them. As I say, we all know what is going to happen: the Government have a huge majority and are not going to accept anything that they feel they do not have to. We do not agree with them that the Bill is moderate at all, which is why we will vote against its Second Reading tonight.
The Minister for Defence People and Veterans is keen that we look at the Bill itself. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill creates a presumption against prosecution for a class of defendants, placing one group above the other in the eyes of the law? Does he agree that that is unprecedented in our domestic legal systems, whether we speak of England and Wales or the separate and independent jurisdiction in Scotland? That is unprecedented and that is what is objectionable about the Bill: it does away with the idea of equality before the criminal law, and that is wrong.
My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely correct in saying that. I would go further and say that actually, in terms of the whole scope of the Bill and how it protects the Ministry of Defence from claims coming from members of the armed forces themselves, as brilliantly illustrated by the shadow Secretary of State in his speech earlier, it is not welcomed by those people who need protection. We all agree that they need protection, but we cannot agree with the Government that this Bill is the way to do it.
The context is this: this Parliament has no power to prevent the Government from entering a discretionary conflict. There is no war powers Act. When Tony Blair took the country to war—a war that, in an interesting contribution earlier, the Defence Secretary said he now accepts was illegal, but which his party supported at the time—he at least came to this Parliament and held a vote. When the airstrikes in Syria took place in Easter 2018 under the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), that was done away with; that discretion was used without any parliamentary consent.
On the issue of special forces oversight or lack thereof, we stand out as unusual, even by comparison with a country such as the United States with zero oversight of special forces operations. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) has said earlier, this Bill creates two levels of playing field for people in this country. This is all unwelcome and highly unusual. There is a reason that no other country has a version of this Bill on its statute book or before its national legislature. Members of the armed forces are rightly expected to perform to a high standard and members of the armed forces are right to expect a high standard of us in this House, but for the reasons I have outlined we will vote against this legislation tonight. Members of the armed forces are entitled to a better standard than this.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to follow my friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), who made some interesting points, some of which—forgive me—I am going to disagree with. He will not be surprised to hear that, because we have entered into many civilised, and sometimes lubricated, conversations on these very subjects. These issues affect the whole House and have been discussed by many Members in here and in other places, because they really matter.
I declare an interest; I got into politics on leaving the Army, after writing a paper for Policy Exchange in 2013 called “The Fog of Law”, which covered these very subjects and highlighted many of the issues raised in this debate. I appreciate that there are difficult decisions and that it is hard to balance what the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) quite correctly said was the difference between the liability that a civilian employee could expect with their employer and that which a soldier on overseas operations could expect. I accept that that is different.
I accepted that it was different when I swore allegiance to Her Majesty and put on the uniform for the first time. I accepted that it was different because the job I had accepted to do was different; it was fundamentally different—different in every sense from any civilian job at all. Why? Because I promised, as the men and women of our armed forces still promise, to give everything even unto death. That is not something that any other employer asks of their team or their staff. Nobody who is not wearing the Queen’s uniform pledges to defend our people, our islands, our values, our country, our allies and our interests even up to their own life. That is different.
In recognising that that is what we need from our armed forces, we must also recognise that the law defending our troops and the law that applies to their terms of employment must also be different. It simply cannot be the case that civilian employment contracts are applicable to the invasion of Iraq or hard detention operations in Afghanistan, or even to training missions in other places that go wrong and become combat in ways that the people involved do not expect. Of course they must be different.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept that this is a distinction not just between the armed forces serving overseas and civilians, but between armed forces serving overseas and armed forces serving and based in this country? To that extent, this legislation uniquely disadvantages the latter and reduces their rights.
I will accept that this is an overseas operations Bill and that being on patrol in Helmand is different from being on guard at Buckingham Palace, and therefore the rights that troops should accept in different places under different terms should of course be different.
I have served, as have many of my colleagues in all parts of the House. Indeed, my friend and former comrade in arms the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and I served in camps in places where the electricity could best be described as ropey and would fail any civilian investigation. We served in places where to walk outside the camp was to risk everything, from loss of life or limb to very real mental damage. We served in those places because the national security and the interests of our country—decided on by people here, by the way, not soldiers—were judged to be that important.
I listen with interest to what my hon. Friend says and to his example of unique circumstances. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) made the point that this Bill makes some people less or more equal before the law—that it was an unfair application—but it does not prevent anyone from being prosecuted for a crime that they have committed, nor does it introduce special defences for people, so that some of these offences allow them to have an excuse. All it does is ask a prosecutor to have exceptional regard for the circumstances that those concerned may find themselves in and also, where an investigation has already happened, to think about the level of new evidence that should be applicable.
I agree with my right hon. Friend, and the important point about the Bill is that it recognises the difference between a crime and an error. We all know that crimes should be prosecuted, and we all know that the difference between a crime and an error is a difference of understanding and, on some occasions, circumstance. It is not necessarily a crime for a missile, sadly, to go astray and kill civilians. It can be an error; it may be a terrible, regrettable error; it may be an error that we should learn from a thousand times. But it cannot always be a crime, otherwise the invasion of Normandy could never have happened, because if it was always a crime for civilians to die in combat, the troops could not have prepared that battlefield to land on those beaches.
If that was a crime, it would always be a crime to use force in situations where we cannot be absolutely certain of the outcome of that force. Of course, that is never possible, because the reality is that if we put such blocks on any use of force, what we are saying is that force can never be used.
That is simply not what I am saying, and it is quite clear that it is not what I am saying. What I am saying very clearly is that there is a fundamental difference between an error and a crime, and there is a fundamental need in military law to allow soldiers to take the risks that we need them to take if they are going to keep our country safe. If we do not allow them to take those risks, what we are saying, fundamentally, is that the weak must defend themselves and the strong can look after themselves; because the point about military service, soldiering and our armed forces, fundamentally, is that they allow the strong to defend the week. They put the use of force under the rule of law, and they allow this country to be strong and safe, and partnered with others around the world.
It is a great pleasure to follow my friend the hon. and gallant Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). It is a great strength of the veterans community, both inside and outside this place, that we can debate these important matters and take a different view but do so with decency and humility.
I should declare an interest as a veteran. I know very well, and we have heard in the House today, the strength of feeling and the very high regard that Members from across the House have for those who serve in our armed forces. No one, whether they have served in the military or otherwise, deserves to be repeatedly investigated without good cause. If we allow that abuse to continue, we fail collectively in our lifelong commitment to support those who have sacrificed themselves for our country.
This Bill seeks to address such abuses, but however well-intentioned it is, it does require significant improvement, otherwise it will be potentially damaging both to Britain’s standing in the world and to the reputation of our armed forces.
First, I wish to address the definition of “relevant offences” as laid out in clause 6. Subsection (3) states that an offence is not relevant
“if it is an excluded offence by virtue of Part 1 of Schedule 1.”
The offences excluded are largely sexual offences. Although that is, of course, welcome, it is worrying to see the omission of other crimes against humanity and war crimes. I heard what the Secretary of State said earlier, but let us take torture as the obvious example. The prohibition of torture is absolute. There are no exceptions. Its use is illegal under numerous international treaties to which the UK is a signatory, including the Geneva convention.
Speaking as a commanding officer who has gone into the field, may I point out to the House that it is not just this Bill that we have to operate under? Let us take, for example, torture. Article 17 of the Geneva convention specifically prohibits torture, and we can be charged for that. I certainly used to place great emphasis on that point in training troops to go into the field.
My friend the hon. and gallant Gentleman raises a very important point. The reality is that, despite what we have heard from some Members today, if this Bill is passed in its current form, a decision to allow a prosecution to proceed following an allegation of torture after five years had elapsed would be made virtually impossible due to the threshold imposed by the triple lock. This is not the way to rebuild our reputation on the international stage. It would mean the UK reneging on our international legal obligations and could well put us at odds with the ICC. At a time when we are witnessing an erosion of human rights and leaders turning their backs on international institutions, it is more important than ever before that we uphold our values and standards and not undermine them.
Through this Bill, the Government are seeking to right a wrong, but not by addressing the root cause of the issue. In an interview last year—we have heard the quote already, but it is worth hearing again—the Minister for Defence People and Veterans said that one of the biggest problems with this was
“the military’s inability to investigate itself properly and the standard of those investigations. If those investigations were done properly and self-regulation had occurred, we probably wouldn’t be here today.”
The Minister is absolutely right, and the underlying problem is how we have ended up at this point, but nowhere does the Bill mention the need to review how military investigations are conducted. If we had a credible investigatory system that dealt with allegations in an effective, impartial and timely manner—one that allowed us to refer back with confidence—we would not be in the position that we are in now.
There is, though, plenty of support across this House for measures that will protect members of our armed forces. We all know, and I am sure we all agree, that historical prosecutions of our veterans are an emotionally charged subject and one that urgently demands a solution, because nobody—surely nobody—wants to see a repeat of the decades of legal wrangling, the delay and the misery that are still ongoing following investigations of the troubles.
I conclude by saying that the overwhelming majority of members of our armed forces serve with distinction and honour, and they follow the rules, but no one—not one of us—is above the law, and that principle remains true whether or not somebody wears a uniform. One of the best ways to protect our troops is to ensure that we apply the rule of law in every instance. There is much work to be done to improve this Bill, and I hope very much that Ministers will listen to the concerns that have been expressed today and work constructively to improve it in Committee and beyond. I hope we all agree that we owe the brave men and women of our armed forces—the people who serve our nation—a massive debt. Diminishing their hard-won reputation by reneging on our legal and moral obligations is not the manner in which to repay it.
I greatly admire and respect the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), but I fear that it would require rather more than just an improvement to the way in which service authorities investigate allegations to solve this problem, because the problem derives in large part from the application of the Human Rights Act abroad.
The purpose of this Bill should not be to stop sound cases being prosecuted, and it does not do so. Its purpose should be to stop unsound cases being repeatedly investigated, and that, I fear, it fails to do. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) seized on this point in his earlier intervention, in which he referred to intimidation by reinvestigation, and he is right; that is the nub of the problem. The Secretary of State conceded that only a small proportion of these many cases—most of them spurious—end up in a prosecution. He suggested that, if it were known that there would be less likelihood of a prosecution, there might be fewer rounds of investigation and reinvestigation, but I am afraid I do not find that wholly or, indeed, at all convincing. Something must be done to stop the repeated reinvestigations, which, in large part, happen because of the application of the Human Rights Act abroad.
I first became aware of the scale of this problem several years ago when I heard speeches from my hon. and gallant Friends the Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti). The effect of that was to interest me in trying to take the matter further during the two periods for which I chaired the Defence Committee. In those two periods, we produced three reports. The first inquiry was carried out by the sub-Committee under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), now the Minister for Defence People and Veterans. That inquiry dealt with Iraq and reported in February 2017. The second one dealt with Northern Ireland and reported in April 2017.
The third one, dealing with the whole panorama of all these scenarios, reported in July 2019. That report warned that the European Court of Human Rights
“has gone far beyond the original understanding of the European Convention on Human Rights, and… its rulings have stretched the temporal and territorial scope of the Human Rights Act beyond Parliament’s original intentions”.
The report examined proposals by Professor Richard Ekins, now professor of law and constitutional government at Oxford University, in which he proposed to restore the former scope of the HRA and the application of the ECHR. As long as that legislation, which was never intended to be applied abroad when it was enacted by this House in 1998, persists in its extended application, we will not solve this problem.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is not only the United Kingdom facing an issue with the extraterritoriality of the ECHR? The French Conseil d’État —in which I must declare an interest, as my wife is a member—has also been investigating this, as has the German court, because this extraterritoriality was never envisioned by the signatories in the ’50s, nor was it envisioned by the then Prime Minister in the ’90s.
I absolutely accept that this is not a problem confined to us. It is something that has crept into the international scene. Law-observing democracies are finding themselves hamstrung because of the misapplication of what is essentially civil law to the battlefield. That is wrong. It was never intended to be the case, and until it is put right, we will not solve this problem.
It is true that the Government, in this Bill, are considering derogating from the ECHR; clause 12 encourages, but does not require, such derogations. That would help, but according to Professor Ekins, whose work with Policy Exchange I acknowledge, that would be no substitute for amending the Human Rights Act and providing that it should not apply outside the UK, or at least that it should apply only in strictly limited circumstances. Parliament should go back to what it intended in 1998. It would also be much better for Parliament to require the Government to derogate in relation to overseas operations and to amend the Human Rights Act so that it does not apply abroad.
With good will on both sides, the Bill can be improved, and I urge those on both Front Benches to work together in pursuit of an improved outcome.
I have been in the House for nearly 20 years, and I have always prided myself on being a strong advocate for defence and the support of our servicemen and women, both from the Back Benches and as a Minister. I am also no friend of unscrupulous lawyers. Older Members of the House will remember my campaign of the early 2000s against unscrupulous lawyers who defrauded my constituents who were claiming miners’ compensation. That led to the instigation of the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which took the disciplining of lawyers away from the Law Society. I am also, though, a strong supporter of the legal system and of the military justice system. I have served on the last three armed forces Bills as either a Minister or a Back Bencher, and I think I understand the system well and respect it.
Unfortunately, though, this Bill does not pass the Ronseal test: it does not do what it says on the tin. It excludes completely the arguments, with which I have a lot of sympathy, about prosecutions of those in Northern Ireland. The other issue is the need for the Bill. Its promoters give the impression that there is an army of vexatious lawyers out there who are pursuing veterans. I asked, in a parliamentary question, for numbers. I was told that they were not kept by the Department centrally. The explanatory notes say that there were 900 cases for Afghanistan and Iraq between 2003 and 2009; the impact assessment says the number is 1,000, but what they do not explain is the nature of those cases. How many were brought by vexatious lawyers? How many were compensation cases rightly brought by members of the armed forces or their families?
I accept the issues around the case of Phil Shiner. That individual was disgraceful, but I have to say that the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which was put in place by the last Labour Government, sorted that problem out. On the other main thing that has been raised today, I was a Minister in the Department at the time, and the problem was the way in which cases were investigated. The Bill will not address that.
The other point that I would like to address is my fear that the presumption, as outlined in the Bill at the moment, that prosecutions will not go forward outside a certain timescale will lead to members of our armed forces going before the International Criminal Court. That cannot be acceptable. If we had that presumption against prosecution, the court would perhaps conclude that the UK was either unwilling or unable to initiate a prosecution. I do not want to see that, and I do not think the Minister does either, but it is an unintended consequence of the Bill and it has to be changed.
I also have problems with clause 3, which says that prosecutors should take into account “exceptional demands and stresses” in cases after five years. If it is good enough after five years, why not before? There is no need for the clause, because that is already taken into account. The Judge Advocate General, in his letter to the Defence Secretary, outlined the case of Marine A, where evidence of unique circumstances taken at the first court martial and then at the appeal meant that the sentence was reduced to manslaughter.
Does the right hon. Member not agree that it diminishes the Government’s standing when they come to the House and cast to one side all these concerns from experts such as those he mentions, when there probably is a reasonable Bill that the House could gather around?
I think there is, but I also say that people should talk to those in the service justice system, because they do this every day of the week. They are an independent judiciary—that is recognised internationally. They do a job in ensuring that people get justice and I think that this Bill will complicate that. One of my fears is that this will undermine the military justice system, of which I am a passionate supporter. I know that some people want to do away with it, but I certainly do not. I also agree with the points that have been raised by the Royal British Legion and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) concerning conditions around the ability of veterans to make compensation claims later.
I will not vote against the Bill tonight, because I think it can be improved. However, I will also not fall into the political trap that has been set, where it will be said that if someone is against the Bill or criticises it in any way, they favour ambulance-chasing lawyers over our armed forces. I am sorry but I take great exception to that, and I am in good company, along with a lot of other people, such as Field Marshal Lord Guthrie, Nick Parker, for whom I have huge respect—I worked with him in the Ministry of Defence—and the Judge Advocate General.
I respect the right hon. Member and sit with him on the Defence Committee. We have mentioned a lot of names today, but none of them is below General. I have served on operations with some of those people. None of the riflemen, junior non-commissioned officers and young officers has been mentioned, and their fear of ambulance-chasing lawyers and this lawfare should be brought in as well.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman, but I am saying that these are people of higher rank, and others, who understand the command of that justice system. You cannot get a higher person than the Judge Advocate General. He was not even consulted on the Bill, which I find remarkable. The most senior lawyer in that system was not actually consulted.
Not really, no, because I am about to conclude.
The Bill is not perfect. It can be improved, but the Minister who is taking it through the House has to change his attitude. He has to be open-minded to change. He has to not play politics on the basis that anyone who criticises the Bill is somehow against the armed forces, because we are certainly not, and I include myself in that.
I will finish on this point: in the letter that the Judge Advocate General sent to the Defence Secretary, he said:
“The bill as drafted is not the answer.”
I agree with him on that.
I have the greatest respect for the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and I accept what he said, but I emphasise the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson) just made. He made the first reference to the people who are really affected by what we are talking about—that is, the young men and women who are normally charged. Let us remember, colleagues, how bloody awful it is to undergo some of these investigations time and again. Let us remember how dreadful it was when we saw those ambulance-chasing lawyers going after units and individuals in Iraq, and later in Afghanistan.
In my constituency, there are many people with mental health issues—indeed, one of my constituents, unfortunately, died just within the last month. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Bill can enshrine in law the support for those being maliciously and wrongly dragged through the courts, which definitely affects the mental health of those people in their service to Queen and country?
I hope so, but I am not sure that it can retrospectively. We all know that a lot of money was made—3,400 allegations were made about our servicemen and servicewomen, and 65% of those were made by Mr Shiner’s company, Public Interest Lawyers, which made a heck of a lot of money. With every accusation, the Ministry of Defence had to back it up with legal aid. The lawyers got four hours of legal aid; probably about £1,000 was given to these lawyers. Actually, the people who were under investigation did not have much support when they were going through it.
I have no particular love for lawyers—particularly of the grasping variety—with the right honourable exception of my colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). Does the hon. and gallant Gentleman agree that what he is talking about is ultimately counterproductive to recruitment to our armed forces?
Actually, I do not. What is counter- productive is if people joining the armed forces feel that they will be under this sort of pressure and they will be investigated unfairly. If they believe that they will be investigated fairly, that will encourage recruitment.
I am appalled by the idea that the Ministry of Defence had to pay out £40 million for fallacious claims and another £10 million on Operation Northmoor, which was about Afghanistan. I am pretty appalled that the Iraq Historic Allegations Team within the Ministry of Defence did what it did. It did not help our armed forces, and that is held against the Ministry of Defence. It should have sorted that out a long time ago. Obviously, most claims were fallacious. Shiner was struck off in 2017, but not before he, with 65% of the allegations, had done huge psychological and mental damage to our servicemen and servicewomen.
I am pleased that these two organisations have been closed down. It cannot happen again. That is the purpose of the Bill. It may not be 100% perfect, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West said, it is what our armed forces want to happen. There are about 2 million veterans in this country and they want this to happen, and it will encourage, not discourage, people to join the military.
I did seven tours in Northern Ireland and I totally understand that Northern Ireland has to be dealt with. The Government have promised to deal with it this year, and will somehow get it sorted out. The Bill is not about Northern Ireland; it is about what happened overseas.
I personally am delighted that the Bill has been introduced. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), although if he wants to continue as a Minister in the Ministry of Defence he should get a haircut. I think I have said enough. I will sit down.
It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), whose hair is looking glorious this afternoon as well. I declare an interest because, as most Members will know, my husband is a veteran. [Interruption.] He is also an Ulsterman: I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for pointing that out.
I must pick up the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham on one thing. It is not true to say that all members of the armed forces want this Bill, as that is not the case. None of us wants a repeat of the shameful Phil Shiner episode, and no person in this House would disagree that we need protections in place for our personnel and veterans. Unfortunately, however, the Bill is not the vehicle to do that. Our armed forces are the gold standard for militaries around the world, and that must include the structures we have in place to deal with behaviour that falls short of our expectations.
Like the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), I have submitted a series of written questions to try to get a feel for the scale of this problem. I was hoping for a bit of information, but I am yet to have any answers to these questions. The Minister has not been in touch. Despite what the Secretary of State said— it is a pity he has gone now—about the Library impact assessment having all those numbers in it, it does not. It has numbers relating to part 2 of the Bill, not part 1. It is worrying that we are bringing forward legislation to tackle the industrial scale of vexatious claims, but we cannot get a handle on how many there actually are.
As we know, many conflicts involving our personnel are in parts of the world that are now experiencing a fragile peace. To put in place a statute of limitations on prosecutions assumes that normality and the structures of a democratic society will be promptly established post conflict. This, of course, is not the case. If we are to rely on investigations that have taken place, we must have confidence in those original investigations.
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s point about the confusion of post-conflict societies and therefore about the statute of limitations, but would she not accept that this goes both ways? There is also the difficulty people can have in defending themselves when evidence has been lost, burned or destroyed in exactly those post-conflict societies, and therefore time works both ways on this question. This is essential for the defence in justice, because justice must be not only for the prosecution, but for the defence.
There are two things: that is not unique to conflict—that happens in many things—and that is also why the original investigation must be carried out properly. If we want to minimise the opportunities for these vexatious claims, such investigations should be independent. They should be collecting accurate evidence, and without this we really do leave the door open.
If the conduct of our personnel is as we expect, why should anyone fear such transparency? This legislation undermines our international standard the more so because it includes, as Members have already mentioned, unlawful killing and torture. Judge Blackett, the Judge Advocate General of the armed forces, has warned:
“This increases the likelihood of UK service personnel appearing before the ICC in the future.”
Is this what any of us want?
Part 2 of the Bill has not had much mention this afternoon, and it should. It is ironic, when we have the Tory chest-thumping going on about protecting our brave soldiers, that part 2 is actually an attack on these very personnel. It removes many of the rights of those who have been injured through the negligence of the MOD to claim against it. Here is the nub of this Bill: it is about protecting the MOD, not personnel.
Responding to the urgent question on 16 July, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans said:
“I will be honest that I cannot, off the top of my head, think why individuals would be diagnosed and choose not to do anything about it… I have not come across that in all my experience in the field, but I am happy to learn. If that is the case, I am happy to change the Bill”.—[Official Report, 16 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 1675.]
Well, that is great, because it needs changing. There are many reasons why claims are not brought forward promptly, such as a culture in the military meaning that personnel may be told they cannot pursue a claim while serving or told by their chain of command they do not have a valid claim. If part 2 becomes law, those injured through negligence will no longer have the full discretion of the court to allow a claim to proceed after the limitation period has expired.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I am short of time.
Instead, those who have served overseas, potentially risking their lives, will have an absolute six-year time limit. Given that people can live with conditions such as deafness, asbestos poisoning and the impact of radiation exposure, with the severity increasing over years, how many personnel would pursue a claim within that time limit? The Government say this Bill will be beneficial to personnel and veterans, so perhaps the Minister can give us some real examples of how.
Personal injury claims are important not only in securing justice, but in holding the MOD to account. The unsuitability of Snatch Land Rovers would never have come to light if it had not been for bereaved families pursuing claims against the MOD. The Bill is contrary to the armed forces covenant, which is a promise by the nation to ensure that those who have served in the armed forces, and their families, are treated fairly. The removal of human rights protection is not treating armed forces personnel fairly.
It is a great privilege to be called so early in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I might be new to this place, but I spent three decades in uniform. I have worked with many veterans charities across the UK, not least in my previous role as commander of the Army engagement group at Sandhurst and in my Bracknell constituency where our armed forces champions are working wonders.
The Bill needs to be considered for what it is, not for what it is not. Given that it is groundbreaking, it needs to start somewhere and is therefore bound to attract negative interest. For those who have not noticed, the architect of the Bill is a veteran. I cannot think of a single Minister who has invested so much of himself against such a tough backdrop and I commend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, for everything he has done this far. He has fulfilled his promise, to date, to our veterans and it is incumbent on us in this place to be objective, because we will not be forgiven if we fail. I do not believe that anybody can be a supporter of our armed forces and vote against the Bill.
I will not have that. The armed forces look to this place to get this right—the hon. Gentleman is correct on that—but they expect and deserve a better standard than the comment he has just made. I know he is new, but I like him and I just ask him to withdraw it. Please withdraw it.
I am a great fan of the Bill and the Bill is right. We need to put it through.
At its simplest level, the imposition of a presumption in law against prosecution after five years will provide greater certainty for our service personnel. Since 2002, the MOD has faced 1,400 judicial review claims and over 2,000 civil claims relating to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan alone. Many are valid, but about 3,400 allegations of unlawful killings have also been received by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, of which at least 70% have been filtered out as being spurious. Members will also be aware of the al-Sweady inquiry, which cost the taxpayer £31 million and was proven to be based on
“deliberate lies, reckless speculation and ingrained hostility”.
That was just the tip of the iceberg, and it is right that public interest lawyers, such as Phil Shiner, should have been struck off. But that is nothing compared to the anguish of our veterans, many of whom are innocent.
I agree very much. The bottom line is that veterans I have spoken to over the years are worried about the next knock at the door. I believe that the Bill will give certainty to the current generation and to those who come afterwards.
To tackle the conjecture, if I may, the Bill does not absolve any member of Her Majesty’s forces from the obligation to operate within the law. It does not impact on criminal investigations and it does not create, or come close to creating, any de facto immunity for service personnel, as the few bad apples will always be brought to justice. As for the downright fabrication, the Bill does not place our troops on a collision course with the Geneva convention or The Hague, and it does not break international law.
I have read the Bill. In fact, I cannot think of a more robust institution than the MOD for upholding the law, and the UK has a proud record of overseas military service which is to be applauded, not undermined.
As for part 2, I am comfortable that the six-year long stop of civil claims for personal injury and death is about right, given that 94% of all claims since 2007 have been settled within five years. However, we have the Committee stage to unpick that further if we need to. I also understand that the long stop applies to the point at which legacy issues, such as hearing loss, PTSD and physical illness first come to light, therefore providing a safety net.
Most important for me, the Bill requires that, when making legal judgments, the courts must consider the unique circumstances of overseas operations and any adverse effect on our personnel. Those who have served will know that warfighting is dangerous and terrifying, with confusion all around, friends falling beside you, sweat dripping into your eyes, the ground exploding, people moving in every direction, images of family flashing before your eyes and abject terror everywhere. What would you do? Fortunately, the training is good, the loyalty and camaraderie in HM forces are unparalleled, and our soldiers do operate within the law of armed conflict. I salute all those who got closer to danger than I did.
Despite what others would have us think, the Bill does not provide blanket immunity for soldiers to commit war crimes. Indeed, the suggestion in some of what I have read that the best trained and best led armed forces in the world are somehow predisposed to inflicting torture or sex crimes on operations is ridiculous. It is deeply offensive to those who serve, and the people who peddle this nonsense just need to stop. [An Hon. Member: “Nobody has said it.”] I have seen it.
To those who seek to judge our veterans after many years of service from the sanctity of their courtroom or the comfort of their armchair, I say, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, whatever notion you have of idealism, it may be that you just don’t get it.” That is why the Government need to provide the protection in law.
To conclude, I pass on three messages on behalf of many of our 2.2 million veterans who have contacted me to offer support. First, I say to the esteemed figures who have chosen to unpick the Bill by writing divisive articles for the national media, “I regret, you do not speak for me.” Secondly, I say to those dishonourable lawyers who have pursued the victims of a witch hunt into their later years, “You need to be struck off.” To my esteemed colleagues on the Opposition Benches, I say, “Please pay heed today, to stay on the right side of this. Unlike the thousands of soldiers I was proud to serve with, your constituents might not be quite so forgiving.” Let us do the right thing for those who have endured so much for so long, and put the Bill through.
My constituents clearly live in a very different country from the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland). I declare an interest, as it seems that everyone else is doing, in that my brother is a member of the armed forces, as is my nephew. Unlike the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson), a fellow member of the Defence Committee, they are not generals, members of senior command or part of the officer corps. [Hon. Members: “Not yet!”] Yes, hopefully in an independent Scotland.
Let us start with what we do agree on. Those of us with close family members who have put themselves in harm’s way overseas, such as in the illegal war in Iraq that the Secretary of State mentioned earlier, know the feeling of dread when that loved one leaves and the utter relief when they come back. The very idea that that dread should be extended long after they have left the battlefield simply on the whim of vicious lawyers is unconscionable. I think we all agree about that. Vexatious claims are rightly illegal, not only because of the psychological duress they inflict on the veterans they target, but because they seek to paint the actions of those who serve and the overall conduct of our armed forces in a negative light purely for profit.
Let us also be clear that while those instances of serving UK personnel breaking international human rights law are well documented, as they should be, they are exceedingly rare. The improvements that the Army in particular has made in the past few decades in ensuring adherence to international human rights law and the rules of engagement should give a sense of genuine achievement and be a matter of pride. Hard fought for, through conventional and non-conventional conflicts, those advances should be jealously guarded by the Government.
However, the fundamental divergence between me and Conservative Members is about how we deal with an intractable issue. Her Majesty’s Government believe that issue is best solved by putting members of Her Majesty’s armed forces beyond the law. Perhaps it is the working-class boy in me—or the fact that I am from a socialist tradition —who thinks that it would be better spent examining the rare lapses of leadership, failures in the chain of command and imbalances in the power structures that led to the crimes being committed in the first place.
I can think back to when I presented a ten-minute rule Bill on the formation of an armed forces representative body. I see the former Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), in his place, and he will know a lot about that. For many veterans I have spoken to since and for many civilians, the principle that serving members of the armed forces deserve the same rights as civilians is self-evident. Just as NHS workers and the police on the frontline protecting our security have certain obligations that cannot be abrogated, so do the armed forces.
When I introduced that Bill, what surprised me was the lack of understanding among Government Members of the idea that there might be a better way to fulfil the solemn contract that a state has to those who place themselves in harm’s way to defend that state. I think that Ministers would agree that this state has not always done that in the best way possible. At the same time as the number of those with experience of military service is at a historic low—as, therefore, is the number of people like me with direct family experience—this Government have consistently taken the path of creating a discrete military caste remote from the communities they have sworn to protect.
I, and those I have spoken to in my party, wish to see a country where veterans and serving personnel are given top-class medical care because top-class medical care is available to all. We want to live in a country where veterans and serving personnel can access affordable and liveable housing for their families because that is available to all. That also means a country where veterans and serving personnel are accountable for their actions in the line of duty, because we are all accountable for our actions in the line of duty.
I stand here as a veteran. Under current legislation, hypothetically, I could be investigated for spurious claims made against me for my service in the Army back in the ’80s. I therefore have a personal interest in the Bill. I have also spoken to many veterans at surgeries, breakfast clubs and legions, and I am acutely aware of the pressures our veterans are placed under and the injustices they feel right now. Many of the veterans I have spoken to were junior ranks, and I concur with the statement of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson).
The Bill represents a huge milestone for military personnel. To be incorrectly accused of wrongdoing is an unacceptable burden. For our present veterans and our veterans of the future, the Bill represents an opportunity to combat that cycle of reinvestigation and vexatious claims and to support our service personnel, who have risked their lives to defend our country and our freedoms overseas. I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for Defence People and Veterans for bringing the Bill to the House today.
I would like to address the first part of the Bill. For me, the triple lock is the most crucial part of this legislation. The presumption against prosecution for alleged offences committed more than five years ago will both curb the often baseless claims made against veterans and stop lawfare by those who seek to abuse the legal system. Critics of the Bill claim that that provision will protect service personnel from the consequences of wrongdoing. The Bill does nothing of the sort. There is no debate in this House, nor should there ever be, about the fact that if service personnel commit a crime, they must be called to account. The Bill does not give service personnel de facto immunity from prosecution. There are still provisions to allow for prosecutions of historical cases where there is compelling evidence.
I have had conversations with veterans living life on the edge, with constant anxiety, thoughts and fears that engulf their post-service lives and the lives of their families. We have lost too many veterans to incapacity and suicide. I am committed to veterans’ health and wellbeing, and I know the veterans Minister is, too.
I hesitate to interrupt my hon. Friend’s compelling and persuasive speech, except to say that she is absolutely right: the Bill is a huge leap forward and the Minister and the Government deserve great credit. As she may know, I am the champion of and have led the parliamentary campaign on behalf of the British nuclear test veterans. Will she ask the Minister to give an absolute assurance that those who fought a long time ago, if evidence emerges that they were damaged through that service, will not be disadvantaged by the provisions of part 2?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I think the Minister heard it loud and clear.
I am passionate about veterans’ health and wellbeing, and the Bill goes a long way to offering security and peace of mind. The requirement for prosecutors to consider the circumstances of warfare is a welcome element. War is not black and white; it is grey, and involves instant judgments and assessments under life-threatening pressure. It is right that the law reflects that reality.
Although I am extremely supportive of the Bill, I accept that there are certain limitations. I would welcome further reassurance from Ministers on how we ensure that rogue lawyers do not bypass the legislation in favour of the international criminal courts to have claims heard. How will the Bill affect service personnel and veterans who are already subject to claims? The six-year long stop in part 2 has drawn criticism. Will the Minister assure me that that will not disadvantage the armed forces community compared with civilians?
We in this House are responsible for sending young men and women into harm’s way, and we rightly expect them to uphold the highest standards of the British armed forces. Despite limited reservations, the Bill will protect our service personnel in the future. It is wrong that servicemen and women we send into conflict should be hounded for years after their active service is over. I understand this legislation will not apply to Northern Ireland, but I am grateful for the Government’s commitment to pursue that separately in Northern Irish legislation. For the current and future service personnel and veterans of my Wrexham constituency, I will support the Bill today. To vote against it would be to deny our service personnel the support of their politicians and this country.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton), not only because she made an eloquent speech but because it has been a pleasure to serve with her on the Defence Committee for the past few months. She is a welcome addition to our group. She followed the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes). Although our opinions on the Bill may differ throughout our proceedings, it is right to acknowledge that on the Defence Committee, there is a great sense of collegiality and a great degree of cohesiveness. We work well and sincerely in the interests of our armed forces and all those who serve our country.
I see the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) in his place smiling at me. A former Chair of our Committee, he expertly navigated the way through two of the three reports published by it. I was a member of the Committee during the passage of the two substantive reports, and I commend them to Members, not just in relation to the Bill but in relation to future provisions that we hope to see apply to Northern Ireland, because they outline the complexity of the legal arguments that are engaged. Not once have we heard mentioned in the debate thus far the rationale for Northern Ireland not to be included in an overseas operations Bill. It is not because it is expedient, but because we operate in entirely different legislative frameworks. International treaties and the Geneva convention do not apply to domestic deployments.
I listened very earnestly to the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) and thought that he made a good speech, but he wanted to focus on what is in the Bill rather than on what is not in it, and I am afraid I cannot do that. I cannot say to the 300,000 veterans who served in Northern Ireland during Operation Banner —the longest continual deployment in our country’s history—that they do not count today. I recognise that those 300,000 do not all live in Northern Ireland. In fact, the majority live in constituencies in England, Scotland and Wales. Yet they are hearing us debate issues about protecting those who protected us without recognising fully that they are not included.
I am very pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman talking about this because it matters so much to many of us. But there is a difference, surely, between overseas operations and domestic operations that he has touched on. The very nature of what we are dealing with, with citizens of countries from around the world rather than citizens of the United Kingdom, means that the legal framework must be different. While I appreciate that he is absolutely right that the Bill should go further, or indeed the Northern Ireland Secretary should bring forward a Bill that covers similar issues, does he not recognise that it at least addresses part of the lacuna, even though not the whole?
I have enormous respect for the hon. Gentleman, and he is right that there is a different legal framework. That is the point I was making, and I acknowledge it. However, I am not prepared to let this Second Reading debate go by without saying that there is a compelling and equal argument that needs to be made for those who served in Northern Ireland: his constituents and mine. When this Bill was introduced for its First Reading on 18 March, a written ministerial statement was also tabled in this House giving equal provision and commitment to the people who served in Northern Ireland. If that was necessary on the day of its first introduction, the very least we could ask is that we would today have clarity and further sight of that, and potentially its introduction, so that there was some parallel progression of the commitment that was in the Conservative party’s manifesto, and veterans are looking to see how it will be brought forward.
As I have mentioned in this place before, both my brothers-in-law served in the Ulster Defence Regiment. The risk to life was as great for them as, if not in some ways greater, than the risk in overseas operations. I can remember them both having to shine a torch under the car every morning. I just make that point for the record. It needs to be remembered.
That is an absolutely compelling point, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has made it. There has been no progress on the commitment that was given for veterans who served in Northern Ireland, and I am concerned that that commitment is being watered down.
We are very clear that we will not leave Northern Ireland veterans behind. The commitment of equal treatment in any Northern Ireland Bill that comes forward will be absolutely adhered to. This Government will not resile from their commitments to those individuals. We recognise, value and cherish the service and sacrifice of everyone who served in those operations.
The Minister will probably make points like that when he concludes the debate. There has been no progression for Northern Ireland today. The right hon. Member for New Forest East—and, indeed, the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle); I rarely agree with him—were absolutely right that nothing in the Bill will frustrate investigations. That process is so burdensome and cumbersome for those who are subjected to it, with repeated inquiries and repeated investigations. Veterans in their 70s and 80s have had their doors knocked in dawn raids or, on one occasion that I can think of, have been taken from their home and flown to Northern Ireland to answer questions for investigatory purposes about an incident on which they have been through two or three investigations in the past. In considering what will come for Northern Ireland, and as fundamentally part of the Bill, we do not believe in the conferment of an amnesty, and I do not believe that what is contained in the Bill does that. I am pleased that that is the case.
When we consider the principles underlining statutory protection for veterans, we must understand that such protection should always be given in a case where there has been a satisfactory investigation previously and, in our domestic context, where the state has discharged its duty under article 2 of the European convention on human rights. I am therefore slightly concerned that clause 4(1)(c) envisages circumstances where an investigation may have commenced previously but not concluded. That should be reflected upon in Committee. It is unwise to offer levels of protection through a presumption of no prosecution, on the basis that an investigation may have commenced but resolved no outcome whatsoever.
I highlight that issue now because it is worthy of further exploration, but, in principle terms, having highlighted the need for more progress for Northern Ireland veterans, no amnesty and no equivalence with paramilitarism, which is another concern this evening, I will give my support to the Bill this evening.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson). I too am honoured to sit on the Defence Committee. We have a very cohesive Committee, which is doing some fascinating work on behalf of our armed services.
May I point out to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) that once a commanding officer, always a commanding officer? Of course, I refer to the mention of the hairstyle of the Minister for Defence People and Veterans. I thank the Minister while he is sitting on the Front Bench, and the Secretary of State, for the huge amount of work that they have both done to get the Bill before the House. I would like to show my appreciation for all the armed service personnel in another country, and to those in South Dorset in camps such as Bovington and Lulworth, the headquarters of the armoured force nowadays. There are many thousands of troops and their families who serve with great distinction and honour, in Dorset and around the world, and we owe them a huge debt.
It is those of us in this House who send troops to war—no one else; we do. We sit here on these green Benches, or at home in our comfortable armchairs, armed with a gin and tonic perhaps, watching the men and women we sent fight for their lives in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Can we possibly, with few exceptions—honourable exceptions—really understand what they have gone through and are going through? I do not think we possibly can.
The law had until recently covered warfare very well. Things like torture and sexual assaults and so on are already covered by international law, under which our troops serve. Unfortunately, other laws have crept into military law and are being exploited, as we have heard, in some cases by unscrupulous lawyers, and even scrupulous lawyers who genuinely feel that they have a legal duty to protect their clients’ claims and investigate them.
The Bill, we have heard, gives immunity to those who commit crimes—or, some have said, gives amnesties. Hon. Members may remember the case of Marine A, Alexander Blackman; I sought his permission to mention his name today. I was honoured and privileged to form part of a small team that fought for him for three years to get his conviction for murder reduced to manslaughter. In that case, if hon. Members remember, he shot a member of the Taliban while serving in Afghanistan. He was convicted of murder and sent to jail for 10 years. Under a very able QC and his team, we took the case to the Appeal Court, where it was reduced to manslaughter with diminished responsibility.
What I find encouraging in the Bill is that—if I may read the notes that I was helpfully given by the Minister—it will require prosecutors, when deciding whether to prosecute, to take into account the unique circumstances of “overseas operations” and the “adverse effects” that those can have on personnel.
In the Appeal Court, five of the top judges in the land listened to the case that I have mentioned and decided that it was not murder. So, having served four years of his life, and having served 16 years with great distinction and honour for Queen and country and for us, Mr Blackman was released.
I will not give way, because 70 Members wish to speak, and the hon. Gentleman has had plenty of time to say his bit.
The point I am trying to make is that this man did not get away with it. He was convicted for four years of his life. He paid for a terrible mistake in the heat of battle after a long tour. When the circumstances were investigated by the lawyers at the Appeal Court and the experiences that he and others had been through came out, and the psychiatrists had their say, it was discovered that this man had been pushed to a point that none of us in this place can understand.
Next time—and there sadly will be another time—we send our men and women into harm’s way, we must remember what we are sending them to. This Bill, which I totally support, is being introduced to protect them from new aspects of law that our forebears in world war two and other battles did not have to cope with. I shall be voting with the Government tonight. I thank the Minister and the Secretary of State for bringing this Bill to the House, and I look forward to the Northern Ireland Bill coming to the House before Christmas.
This is the second piece of legislation that the Government have introduced this week that is predicated on breaking international law. It is alarming that this is the global Britain that was promised in such glowing words by the Prime Minister and his allies over the last few years—a Britain that alienates itself on the world stage and is driven by bluster, tub-thumping and a form of nationalism that endangers both our armed forces and civilians around the globe.
The Defence Secretary has boasted about going to war on lawfare, but preventing acts of torture is not some burdensome red tape. The UK military has opposed torture for decades, and that principle is enshrined in the Army field manual and the Ministry of Defence doctrine, yet the Government wish to provide a triple lock amnesty which would ensure that acts of torture could not be prosecuted if they took place more than five years ago. The Bill would also enshrine direct political interference from the Attorney General in such cases.
Many human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Freedom from Torture, Liberty, Reprieve and Rights Watch UK strongly oppose the Bill on the grounds that it contravenes international humanitarian and human rights law. The organisation Redress warns:
“The Bill risks creating impunity for serious offences including torture, and thus will result in the UK being in breach of its international treaty obligations… The Bill makes the mistake of assuming that all victims are fake, and that British soldiers are always in the right. That is not borne out by history.”
Indeed, it is believed that thousands of allegations of torture and mistreatment from Iraqis and Afghanis have been lodged against British soldiers serving in the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Earlier this year, the International Criminal Court prosecutor determined that there was a basis to allegations that the UK armed forces committed war crimes against detainees in Iraq. Rather than face up to any wrongdoing, the Government now wish to silence victims by introducing time limits for civil claims in connection with overseas operations.
The Bill would also place a duty on all future Governments to consider deviation from the European convention on human rights in relation to significant overseas military operations. That reveals what this legislation is truly about: slashing away crucial protections on human rights under the guise of macho patriotism. Even if we agree with the Government’s argument that those involved in controversial overseas operations should not be left in uncertainty for years, the solution is not to issue a blanket amnesty for potential war crimes.
We have 70 people speaking in this debate.
The solution is for the Government to reverse their severe budget cuts in relation to criminal investigations and to increase accountability and scrutiny of their military interventions.
The Government claim to be standing up for British troops, yet the erosion of global rules against torture would put UK personnel at risk by endangering British soldiers who are detained by foreign forces overseas. Not only that, but the Bill breaches the armed forces convention by preventing British armed forces personnel from holding the Ministry of Defence to account for negligence, personal injury or death. Therefore, despite all the Government’s bluster, this legislation does much more to protect the Ministry of Defence than it does to protect service personnel.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Lady may have inadvertently misled the House, and I would not want her to do that. She made the point just now that the Bill meant that serving personnel could not be prosecuted for war crimes. That is fundamentally untrue, as the Minister no doubt will confirm. If she withdrew that remark, we could all make some progress.
I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but he knows that it is not a point of order for the Chair but the very point that we are debating. The hon. Lady thinks one thing, the right hon. Gentleman thinks another.
I guess I now do not have the time.
If the Government really cared about the wellbeing of veterans, they should pledge today to invest in mental health services and tackling the scourge of homelessness, which affects 3,500 veterans. According to the No Homeless Veterans campaign, this legislation also increases the likelihood of UK service personnel being tried at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, instead of being dealt with in our British justice system.
My constituency has a proud history of supporting our veterans. I would like to start by congratulating VetRun 180, a veterans charity based in Mirfield, on raising a significant amount of money for injured servicemen following its 13-day expedition from John O’Groats to Land’s End. Mirfield is also home to what is reportedly the largest remembrance parade outside London, with Dewsbury not far behind and large services also held in Kirkburton and Denby Dale. I hope that Ministers will give assurances that remembrance services, albeit with smaller numbers, can go ahead this year, so that we can show respect for the war dead and our veterans.
I am pleased that the Bill has been introduced, as it delivers on our manifesto pledge to tackle vexatious claims against armed forces personnel. We owe it to our veterans to ensure that they are protected against these claims and that the circumstances of their judgments are taken into account.
I have seen at first hand the impact that serving in conflict zones can have on someone. When I was a teenager, a friend of mine joined the Army and went on to serve in Northern Ireland during the troubles. Having seen his colleague and friend killed in front of him, he came home and looked a shadow of his former self, clearly affected by that traumatic experience. As a result, he distanced himself from our friendship group and could only seek solace and comfort from his Army colleagues. I cannot begin to imagine what my friend went through during his time in the Army, with his life constantly under threat and having to make snap decisions under extreme circumstances.
Of course, the Bill does not deal with Northern Ireland, and I echo the sentiment expressed by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) in his speech earlier. However, I expect the Government to honour their manifesto commitments and introduce legislation relating to Northern Ireland veterans in the not too distant future.
That aside, those on overseas operations will have endured similar trauma to my friends. Such experiences can affect people’s judgment, and I would be hesitant to criticise people who have made decisions in such gruelling circumstances when I have not been in such situations myself. It is absolutely right that the Bill will ensure that such conditions are taken into account when prosecutions are considered.
I am satisfied that five years is a sufficient period within which to bring a prosecution. The impact on veterans of the looming threat of court action can be horrific, and they do not deserve to be hounded for many years after they have left service. Many of the inquiries and organisations set up to investigate allegations found little basis in the vast majority of them. Operation Northmoor discounted 90% of investigations into the allegations it received, and none were referred for prosecution. The sort of vexatious claims that prompted many of the investigations could ruin the lives of veterans, placing an enormous burden on their mental health.
It is important to recognise that the Bill includes a presumption against prosecution, not a total exemption. Many of the scenarios presented by the Bill’s critics— including gruelling torture, which has been discussed by many Members—would certainly still be dealt with, and rightly so. We have a top-class military with dedicated personnel who put their lives on the line in circumstances of which many of us will have little understanding, and we owe it to them to provide the support and peace of mind that they need. That is why I fully support the Bill.
From the point at which I first became aware of its proper formulation, I have been a supporter of the military covenant. It has always seemed to me to be a statement of decent common sense. The covenant has been important for the past two decades because of the way in which it has shaped and, indeed, changed the debate in politics on matters relating to the military. It has given us something around which we can all unite and is a common starting point for us all. The debate in this House and in the community at large has been much the better for that.
It is for that reason that I have particular regret about the way in which the Bill has come to the House today and—I have to say—about the way in which we have debated it. There has been a degree of heat and asperity in this debate that does not serve this House, or those in our armed forces whom we seek to protect, well. I ask the House, and not just those on the Treasury Bench, to reflect on that. I am aware that I may even have been part of it myself, but on reflection I think those who serve in the armed forces deserve better than this.
As I said to the Secretary of State, there is an easy consensus to be built around taking action against vexatious civil dreams. Unfortunately, what we have heard in support of the Bill does not really build that consensus; we have heard a conflation of civil and criminal procedure, with a view to justifying the otherwise unjustifiable changes to criminal procedure. I have very little problem with the part of the Bill that relates to the regulation of claims. What Phil Shiner did was absolutely unconscionable. If we want to stop that sort of thing, the first point ought to have been to call in the regulatory authorities in the legal profession. If we really want to address that problem, that would be the first place I would start to look.
I wish to put on record the concerns that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I have about the Bill. First, there is the question of a presumption against prosecution. The Secretary of State said earlier that I was a right hon. and learned Member; he was not quite right: I was but a humble solicitor. In fact, in the early stages of my legal career, I served as a prosecutor—as a procurator fiscal depute—and it was useful experience. I cannot think of any other example of this presumption in legislation, and I counsel the House that it is a dangerous one.
I want to focus on the use of torture, because this illustrates very well the lack of logic in not including torture in schedule 1 to the Bill. Where there is evidence of torture, no prosecutor sitting in his or her office should say, “Well, there is clearly evidence of torture, but it is presumed that we will not prosecute it.” What sort of signal does that send? But if we read the Bill, we see that its architecture is such that torture is clearly designed to belong in schedule 1, along with sexual offences. That makes perfect sense. As I have said, that is a matter of logic, not of law. The provisions in schedule 1 cover eventualities whose use is never in any circumstances acceptable, so surely that is where torture belongs. Not to put it there suggests that the use of torture in warfare is in certain circumstances acceptable, and that is a proposition for which there should be no support in this House. In suggesting that, we risk doing ourselves serious damage, and, worse than that, we ill serve those whom we seek to support and to help through the passing of this legislation. The people who will be most damaged by the application of that presumption against prosecution in relation to torture are those who serve and have served in our armed services. As I said in my intervention on the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), the purpose of prosecution is to prove beyond reasonable doubt that something has or has not happened. This presumption will work against that, and at the end of the day, the people who will lose as a result are those against whom suspicion exists.
After the next hon. Member to speak, the time limit will be reduced to three minutes so that we can try to give an opportunity to as many people as possible to participate in this important debate, but now I call Stuart Anderson to speak for five minutes.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the extra few minutes. I declare an interest as a veteran who has served on multiple overseas operational tours and successfully taken the Ministry of Defence to court over injuries sustained in my time. In my maiden speech I spoke about what was best described as a hatred of this place and the decisions that were made here. After those decisions were made, I had to go and fight in those conflicts and saw them at first hand. But I think we need to move on from that and say, “There are new Members in; let us help to educate the House from our perspective.” We do not all have the same views, but we have been given that opportunity, so I want to show hon. Members a day in my life as a young soldier.
At the age of 22, I had been shot, rehabilitated, learned to walk again, returned to active duty, spent several years on different operational tours, gained promotion and got married. Then Kosovo erupted. We were chosen to go at the start of the conflict, so on returning from my honeymoon, I kissed my wife goodbye and said, “See you in six months.” As we entered Pristina, we did not know what awaited us. I was a proud junior NCO—that meant I could read a map—with the formidable R Company of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Green Jackets. I worked alongside professional, battle-hardened men, and we knew our job and did it well. There was no proper accommodation when we arrived, so we put our doss bags down in what could best be described as rat-infested, disease-ridden derelict buildings. We worked all hours round the clock, so sleep was a real bonus if we got it. Within a couple of weeks of the tour starting, it was clear that we were stretched thin, had unsuitable kit and lived in the worst conditions imaginable. We did not complain. We got on with it.
One evening, when I was a quick reaction force commander, our temporary base was burned down. It would have been a blessing to get rid of the place if my friends had not been so badly burned in it. As we were trying to put the fire out, the conflict raged all around us. We had to go and deal with that, regardless of the fact that all our stuff was getting burned as we did so. My brief over the radio on the way to the incident was, “Several armed men have entered a house. Civilians inside. Serious threat to life. Deal with it.”
There are all kinds of ways of dealing with such situations in training, and loads of support agencies that can be brought in. Not one was available then, so I and three of my colleagues arrived at the location. I briefed the team by saying, “Make ready.” For those who do not know, that means put a round in the chamber and prepare to engage the enemy. We entered the building and had a split second to decide whether these men were armed. Were they waiting for us? Were they even in there? What were they going to do? We were sleep deprived, under pressure and had just watched our mates burn. We knew the rules of engagement. We knew what we could and could not do. If we made the wrong decision, we went to prison or we died.
On that occasion, we were able to get the men to surrender and prevented any loss of life.
That incident is nothing unusual in the day of a soldier on operational tour. That is what they do—day in, day out. They never want to be held above the law. They do not want to be treated differently. They want to do their job without fear of being chased decades afterwards. If a crime is committed, they must be prosecuted, and they all get that, but this lawfare culture is a disgrace to this country. It will damage the military and it must be stopped.
This Bill is a major step forward for veterans and soldiers. It will bring back reassurance for our troops that they can move in operations without that fear of prosecution. I welcome everything that my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans has done to get this legislation here. It is a major step forward. I also welcome the Northern Ireland Bill that is coming forward. We must see that through.
Like me with the long beard, the Minister has long hair; we are leading the game in this House.
I am new to this game. I have only been a politician since last year. As I said, I had never voted before 2015. I hated politics and the decisions made. I have watched some of the debates and have honestly found myself angry at some views, but I have to put that to one side because we have to debate this matter fairly. I have seen the impact of these issues on soldiers’ lives; some of my friends are not here now because they took their own lives. We have got to put that above everything else. I am asking the House to put egos and political parties aside, and to support this legislation tonight. We will be judged by our actions, not our words.
It is right that we protect our armed services personnel and veterans. These men and women have served us and our country, and it is only right that we serve their needs. It is our duty to prioritise their welfare and mental health, and to support them and their families in every conceivable way, not just when they are in service, but after they return home—for as long as they need it.
It is our intention to work supportively with the Government to improve this Bill for the better protection of our service personnel and veterans. Unamended, the Bill leaves Army personnel with less power to protect themselves once they have completed service. What are the Government more concerned about—protecting the Ministry of Defence as a Department or protecting our honourable service personnel on the ground, who risk their lives day in, day out to make sure that the people of the United Kingdom and citizens across the world are kept safe? As it stands, the Bill does more to protect the Ministry of Defence than it does for our troops and veterans.
The Labour party is determined that we will absolutely stand up for our troops’ rights to justice from the Ministry of Defence should it fall short in protecting our forces. Members of the armed forces have given years of their lives and sacrificed memories with their families to protect us and our great nation. It is utterly unfair to place a time limit on their right to hold the Ministry of Defence to account if they develop later in life mental and physical disabilities as a result of their time in service. It is well documented by numerous organisations and armed forces veterans themselves that, in many cases, duty-related ailments, injuries and mental health issues do not develop until years after they have left service. Many service personnel and veterans have spoken out about their horror at the Bill’s intention to introduce a six-year time limit on claims for personal injuries and/or death. Will the Minister accept that one reason for a delay in soldiers bringing cases can be the impact of trauma? As we know, tragically, there can be extremely high rates of PTSD in the military. The Bill penalises our wonderful service personnel and is a flagrant breach of the covenant.
There is no reason why we should be under-protecting our service personnel and veterans, who have sacrificed so much to protect us. Personal injury claims are incredibly important not only in securing justice for injured people or bereaved families, but in holding the Ministry of Defence to account.
As I mentioned, our intention is to work with the Government and to strengthen the Bill. The Government can do that by increasing protection for our own forces while, crucially, still adhering to international obligations and frameworks that determine best practice of behaviour and standards for all armed forces across the world. As an MP for many service personnel and veterans in Coventry North West, I am here to protect them, to speak up for them and to stand up for them. We should focus on looking after them on their overseas missions and when they return home, when many face an uphill battle to survive. We must protect and uphold their rights when they return home from service, and provide them with the dignity and respect that they deserve.
I welcome the Bill, as it delivers on our election manifesto promise to deal with a long-standing injustice. It paves the way to a new framework that puts justice at its heart.
I have always been proud of our armed forces. My late father was in the Royal Scots Greys and the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, and my husband, my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), is an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan. I am also very proud of how my constituency supports our veterans, especially the Royal British Legion in Morley, where Gail and her team of volunteers raise tens of thousands of pounds per year for our veterans. Veterans are part of all our communities and it is crucial that we value their contribution to this country. We must seek to protect them as they put their lives on the line to protect us and our country.
The Bill finally finds a solution to end the injustice of vexatious claims. For too long, veterans have been the victims of lawyers’ profiteering ventures, in which profits were made from the constant threat of re-prosecution. A new five-year limit on the time in which our troops can be subject to legal claims, apart from in exceptional circumstances, will help to stop unfounded allegations.
We ask much of our armed forces, yet, as things stand, they face an unending trauma from persistent reinvestigation. In essence, the Bill acts to remove that injustice and creates a new legal framework that puts justice at its core. The Bill will achieve that with a triple lock to protect and secure the welfare of our armed forces personnel.
My hon. Friend, as ever, makes a strong case. Will she confirm that, far from the irresponsible, scurrilous and unpatriotic claims of the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe), the Bill does not mean that soldiers can do as they please? It simply protects them from those very malicious and vexatious charges long after they have served, which they have been plagued by for too long.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comment. That trauma has been inflicted on veterans by disgraced lawyers should be a source of shame to us all. Many veterans’ lives have been put into a state of unending misery.
The Bill will require that prosecutors take into account the adverse effect that overseas operations can have on service personnel. It recognises that, in the interests of justice, there should be reasonable and swift resolution of cases that have already been investigated and in which there is no compelling new evidence. There is justice in having certainty about the future for our armed forces—they deserve that. This is a legal framework that provides clarity in dealing with these allegations. I welcome the Bill not only for removing the injustice of repeated investigations, but for being a measured step—
No, I am running out of time.
The Bill will not put our armed forces in any legal privilege. The same laws, both domestic and international, will always apply. The Bill’s statutory presumption against prosecution does not prevent justice from being served in cases where armed forces personnel have committed genuine crimes. This is a Conservative party manifesto promise and, as a party, we will always stand up to fight for our servicemen and women. Most importantly, however, the Bill ends the blight on the lives of our veterans with sensible and fair measures. My constituents will welcome its contribution to guaranteeing justice for those who have protected our freedom.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), and I share her objective of ending vexatious claims. But it is to our shame that Governments of which I was a member, in circumstances that we still do not fully understand, participated in rendition leading to torture. That should not have happened and it must not be allowed to happen ever again. That is the aim of the all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition, of which I was recently elected Chair. I am afraid that this Bill will not help with that shared objective. I am troubled, for example, that, in the Bill, the presumption against prosecution will extend not just to the battlefield, not just to the sort of circumstances that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson) very powerfully explained to us a few minutes ago, but to peacekeeping operations and to a worryingly undefined category of operations dealing with terrorism. We could so easily slip back to repeating what went so badly wrong before.
The House’s Intelligence and Security Committee has carried out two investigations of extraordinary rendition. There is still a great deal that we do not know, but the Committee has identified hundreds of cases linked to the UK. Many of the people involved still do not know that the UK was involved in what happened to them, and it would be quite wrong to cut them off now from any legal redress. There will one day need to be a judge-led inquiry into what happened with that extraordinary rendition, but, for now, the Government seem to have set their face against that. It may well fall to the Front Bench of this party to do the right thing, but let us not now choose to downgrade the seriousness with which we regard acts of torture. I asked the Secretary of State why, having floated the idea of excluding torture from the remit of this Bill along with sexual offences, the Department did not exclude torture. Sexual offences, I am pleased to say, have been excluded. The Secretary of State did not give an answer. He simply said that that was the decision that he had made. In the case of sexual offences, it is absolutely right: those are not acceptable in any circumstances. Surely the same is true for torture. That must surely be the view of this House and of the British Government as well.
I must declare an interest, as I am a member of the Royal British Legion. I will be brief, as I know that time is short. I pay tribute to the work of the Secretary of State for Defence and the Minister for Defence People and Veterans for their unwavering support for the veteran community both nationally and in my home constituency of Blyth Valley.
Blyth has a long history of supporting our armed forces. Members of my own family have served in both the regular and the youth branches of the Army. My father served in the RAF in the post-war years. The Blyth shipyards built many ships for the Royal Navy, including the first aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal. During both world wars, the port of Blyth served as a submarine base and today it plays host to the 203 Elswick Battery Royal Artillery and Army reservists and many of their families.
I am a proud member of the Royal British Legion, which ensures that ex-service communities have a voice here and their concerns can be heard by the Government. With this Bill, the Government have shown that they have listened to our veterans and serving personnel and have taken their concerns seriously. Our armed forces perform exceptional feats in incredibly difficult circumstances to protect this country, and I am proud of the fact that they uphold the highest standards when doing their job overseas.
We have some of the most committed and professional service personnel in the world, who not only adhere to the rule of law but promote it through their conduct while on operations, and we should not second-guess their actions from this House. There seems to be confusion in much of the reporting about the difference between investigations and prosecutions. This Bill does not give free rein to our forces to behave in a way that would bring our services into disrepute, and it will not prevent the prosecution of any service personnel found to have committed illegal acts on operations overseas. Despite suggestions by Opposition Members, it does not provide immunity from torture, but it does make provision for the prosecution of any service personnel found to have been involved in such acts.
The Bill does not act as a pardon, amnesty or statute of limitations. Prosecutors will have the ability to prosecute for criminal offences, including torture, taking into account factors such as sufficiency of evidence and public interest. Furthermore, service personnel are subject to criminal law in England and Wales and to the disciplinary framework of service law, and have a duty to uphold both wherever in the world they are serving. Indeed, the people we have failed in recent years, whom we now deny the protection of law, have—
As I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary human rights group, my comments will be heavily focused on human rights. Perhaps not surprisingly, when I see a Bill come forward from this Government that seeks to achieve a derogation from the ECHR, I am sceptical about its intentions. This Bill is another example of the Government trying to get around our international legal obligations in a “specific and limited way”, and in so doing opening up a whole can of worms for our armed forces personnel overseas.
There can be no doubt that our armed forces carry out incredibly sensitive and dangerous work overseas, and they have our gratitude for doing so. They do not deserve to be repeatedly investigated for vexatious claims against them. The internationally agreed rules of warfare simply must be adhered to. That includes prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity when there is evidence to suggest that those serious offences have been committed in the course of armed conflict. Doing so not only upholds our commitment to the rules-based order but offers armed forces personnel crucial protection from torture and abuse themselves. It is hypocritical of us to demand of others that they should obey international law if we do not follow it ourselves, and the consequences for serving personnel on the battlefield are serious if we undermine our commitments to human rights.
I have considerable concern about the impact that clause 12 will have on our human rights obligations. In its current form, the Bill enables the Secretary of State to derogate from article 15 of the ECHR in certain circumstances, even though article 15 is one of the provisions of the ECHR where derogation can take place. I am concerned about the concentration of power in the hands of the Executive on matters pertaining to states of emergency, especially as the clause only places a duty on the Secretary of State to consider whether an overseas operation is significant enough to merit derogation. At the very least, additional parliamentary oversight is required before such a derogation is made, given the existing notification requirements to the Council of Europe for such a derogation to take place.
Our armed forces deserve protection but should not be above the law. Unfortunately, the Bill creates far too many unintended consequences for the UK’s reputation as a country that upholds human rights and the rule of law. I do not believe that the Government have adequately addressed those issues in the Bill as it stands, and it is for that reason that I will join my colleagues on the SNP Benches in voting against the Bill tonight.
My constituency is home to many veterans. Their service to our nation is valued by me as their MP and by the overwhelming majority of the local community. For their service, we owe them a great debt of gratitude, and central to that gratitude is the full implementation of the military covenant right across the United Kingdom—something on which we in Northern Ireland still have a way to go.
At the core of that covenant—that promise between society and our military family—is the principle of fairness, and I believe that the Bill before us is no different. At the heart of this should be fairness. Is it fair that our military personnel are targeted through vexatious actions that are proven to have no legitimacy when they reach a court but, in the period up to that point, come at a mental and financial cost that is a heavy burden to bear? Likewise, would it be fair for those who have committed wrongdoing to be able to escape justice? Would that be fair on victims? Absolutely not.
I am conscious of the concerns raised both by hon. Members in this House and by constituents that this Bill could exempt soldiers from justice in relation to heinous acts such as torture. No one wants that. At all times, the punishment, whether or not the alleged offence is within a five-year period, must fit the crime. There should be no amnesty for those who abuse the uniform when serving Crown and country.
One area that still remains unresolved by this Bill, despite a promise and platitudes from the Government, is the vexatious prosecution of those who served in Northern Ireland. These veterans must not be left behind.
There are still many veterans who are awaiting the knock on the door. As has been mentioned, 80-year-old men are receiving that knock on the door. When the Minister is summing up the debate, will he give assurances on the progress of implementation and forward movement of inclusion within the Northern Ireland Bill?
I thank my hon. Friend, and I agree entirely with his sentiments.
On 18 March, in a statement to this House, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland did give a commitment that there would be equal treatment for Northern Ireland veterans, yet today we see no sign of a Bill that will give that equal treatment to the veterans who served in the streets and laneways of Ulster. Such delays create suspicion, so I urge the Minister to commit that, before this Bill becomes law, veterans in Northern Ireland will have that equal treatment.
It is always a learning curve, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I am still learning.
On the issue of our veterans in Northern Ireland—I declare an interest as one of those veterans, having served in the Ulster Defence Regiment in Northern Ireland—the Minister gave a commitment previously that, by the end of this year, a Bill would be coming through on Northern Ireland veterans’ issues. Does my hon. Friend, like me, want to see the Minister committing himself at the end of this debate to giving veterans in Northern Ireland the same protection as those here on the mainland?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I wholeheartedly agree with him. I think the Minister will have got the message loud and clear from the Ulster Benches that we want that clarity today. Those who served in Operation Banner, who stood firm against terrorism and who defeated those terrorists must not be left behind as prey for unscrupulous lawyers, emboldened by smears and innuendo from self-styled rights activists, republican politicians or investigative journalists. To do so would be wrong.
In Northern Ireland, we have the ludicrous scenario where terrorists were freed from prison having served only 18 months for the murder of police officers and soldiers, yet we are here having to debate why we do not pursue elderly men who have served their country by standing against those very terrorists. These same terrorists now want to be paid compensation for the injuries they suffered carrying out their illegal and murderous deeds. I want to put a marker down in relation to this Bill: there can be no consideration and no legal framework to offer a level of equivalence between the perpetrator and the innocent victim.
In conclusion, this is a matter of fairness—fairness to our servicemen and women, fairness to victims and the fair application of the law of this land, but also fairness within the ranks of service personnel. Northern Ireland veterans must be treated fairly, and in that regard this Government must step up and live up to their prior commitment—no more lip service, no more delay.
I welcome the clear intention to support our service personnel, whom we send into harm’s way on operations overseas quite often these days, with this Bill. First, let me congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans on all the incredibly hard work he has done on veterans’ issues and on the work he has done to bring this Bill before the House.
I would like to declare an interest as a veteran. I was proud to serve our country in Afghanistan on Op Herrick 9 as a mobilised reservist in the Royal Artillery. One of my sons, Michael, is currently serving in the Royal Artillery as a lance bombardier in 1RHA—1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery—having just returned this week from a six-month deployment to Estonia. I am looking forward to catching up with him at the weekend and having a few beers.
While I anticipate the important legislation that will follow this Bill and address the great injustice of the treatment of our Northern Ireland veterans, I hope that this Bill will end the vexatious and repeated claims that some of our service personnel have had to endure following their service in Afghanistan and Iraq. I will support the Bill, although I have some questions about which I hope Ministers will reassure me.
Will the Minister assure me that the Bill will not lead to an increased risk that our people will be pursued through the International Criminal Court? We must be careful not to give the impression unintentionally that our armed forces do not operate to the highest possible standards, as we know they do, or that some sort of immunity exists for them while on operations. We must make that point throughout, and be clear that if a service person commits a crime on an overseas operation, they will be held to account legally.
Service personnel are taught about the law of armed conflict and their obligations under the Geneva convention, which they take incredibly seriously. Colleagues have drawn attention to the fundamental difference between an error in the fog of war, and a crime. Even with all the modern technology now available to our armed forces, sadly, we will never eliminate the risk of civilian casualties.
In a recent interview, General Sir Nick Carter drew attention to the need for better records to be kept on operations, and for service personnel to know that any incident that occurs on operations and leads to an investigation will be dealt with quickly by the MOD. As my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said, it is not entirely clear that the Bill will be able to stop repeated investigations. I hope Ministers can assure me that once an investigation has closed, it will not be repeated unless there is more compelling evidence that specifically relates to that case. That will put an end to repeated investigations and interviews by various boards of inquiry that can drag on for many years, with both service and civilian police.
I was proud to serve on the Armed Forces Bill Committee, which enshrined the armed forces covenant in law for the first time and means that military personnel will not be disadvantaged by their service. Will the Minister reassure the House that the Bill will not inhibit the ability of any veteran who seeks legal action against the MOD?
It is a privilege to speak in this debate on an issue that is of great importance to me and my constituents. Indeed, it was a manifesto commitment, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) on his considerable energy in delivering the Bill.
Lincolnshire is the proud home of much of our air force and its heritage. Sleaford and North Hykeham is lucky to have a number of RAF bases, including RAF Cranwell, at which the next generation of officers are trained. Through the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have seen at first hand how our armed forces personnel train night and day, so that they are fully prepared to protect us in the most difficult circumstances imaginable.
Although our armed forces put their lives on the line to protect us in conflict overseas, there has been a collective failure to protect them from vexatious claims when they come home. The strong emotions on that topic cannot be understated, and like many colleagues, I have received much correspondence about this issue, which is often raised in conversations with veterans, service personnel and families. I believe that the Bill cannot come soon enough, although, tragically, for many veterans it will have come too late. In 2014, the al-Sweady inquiry found that the vast majority of claims made against the British military were the product of “deliberate and calculated lies.” Those lies came at a huge personal cost to soldiers who were victims of them.
Our brave men and women in the armed forces do not want to be, and should not be, above the law, and the Bill will not make them above the law. They want to be protected from vexatious claims, however, and we should ensure that they are. At the core of this issue has been the expansion of human rights law under the ECHR to apply outside the UK, and its conflict with international humanitarian law. The Bill will protect our personnel from vexatious claims, and I am proud to see the Government fulfilling their manifesto commitment to protect the armed forces.
As other hon. Members have said, the Bill does not cover Northern Ireland veterans, but earlier in the debate I heard the Minister’s assurances in that regard, and I hope that further legislation will come forward soon. I welcome the introduction of the Bill, and will support it this evening. I look forward to the day when our veterans no longer need to worry that their brave and honourable service for this country will be tarnished by repeated intimidation by investigation.
Let me say at the outset that although I did not agree with all his conclusions, I found the speech by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson) stark, powerful and illuminating. I pay tribute to him for his service.
Chester is a proud garrison city. The hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who is in his place, served as leader of the Cheshire Regiment and is still highly thought of there. Many of the men who served with him are now veterans, and I have a large veteran community in Chester. I seek to represent them because they served us, and we owe them a debt for that service. We owe it to them to look after them, which is why I have in the past called for measures to protect veterans from vexatious claims. Consequently, I will not vote against Second Reading tonight.
None the less, it is the role and the right of the Opposition to point out errors and holes in legislation and to try to improve it. I was disappointed by the response from the Secretary of State, particularly his outburst when my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Deane (John Healey) the shadow Secretary of State, pointed out some of the holes and criticisms. There are clear reasons to include torture in the scope of the Bill, but that was rejected.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) and the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) both talked about the fact that the legislation will not prevent investigations, and in that respect there is a particular group I want to talk about. When there is a knock on the door at 7 o’clock in the morning, it is not just the veteran who suffers; it is his or her family as well. We need to remember the families of veterans.
I was especially disappointed when, in response to my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, the Secretary of State tried to associate ambulance, tank or armoured personnel carrier-chasing lawyers with the Labour party. My right hon. Friend had taken a constructive approach and will continue to do so. I ask the Minister to consider carefully: these lawyers, who deserve obloquy, have no support from us. Those of us who represent areas where there are high numbers of honourable ex-servicemen want to find a way to protect them. The Bill may be the right way, but it needs to be considered carefully in Committee. I hope the Minister and his colleagues will take into account our genuine and heartfelt concerns about its failings, so that they can be amended during the Bill’s passage through Parliament.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), who made a reasonable and moderate speech. In our debate on the Bill today, we have heard some powerful stories based on personal experience, not least from my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson), as well as some fairly strong accusations based on the belief that the Bill will somehow undermine this country’s enviable legacy in respect of human rights.
I read John Larkin’s article, and I have to concur with the conclusion reached in relation to Felix Frankfurter’s tripartite test for deciding whether a law does what it says on the tin:
“1. Read the statute, 2. Read the statute, 3. Read the statute”.
The Bill does not give, or even approach giving, immunity to service personnel in respect of serious crimes. There is no special provision to prevent prosecutions for torture, and those who claim otherwise should be ashamed of themselves. We hear a lot of Opposition Members paying lip service to supporting our forces, and I believe that some of them genuinely do, but when asked to do so, some have demurred. Failing to support the Bill will be a serious breach of faith on their part.
What the Bill does is create a new framework for prosecutions of alleged offences that take place on overseas operations. It requires exceptional grounds for bringing such prosecutions, and factors relevant to overseas operations must be taken into account by those deciding whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. Specifically, prosecutors must take into account the negative effects on mental health and decision-making capacity arising from being exposed to the overwhelming stress of continuous threat to life or commanding those who are so exposed, from seeing colleagues killed or maimed, or from the myriad other harsh realities of overseas service, which most of us in this place should be grateful for never having seen.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but if they were taken into account and taken seriously, we would not need legislation such as this.
What I described should dispel suggestions that the Bill will create immunity from prosecutions. The Bill only creates a test of exceptionality for prosecutions after a period of five years has expired. What is exceptional within the scope of the Bill is determined by an independent prosecutor, the Attorney General, who is still accountable to this place. It is clearly wrong to say that the Bill would forbid prosecutions of allegations of torture supported by evidence.
The Government are seeking with the Bill to provide some reassurance to service personnel that they are unlikely to be prosecuted many years on from events, where no new evidence has come forward. To paraphrase my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), we the powerful must protect the strong—
Only honourable? Very honourable indeed. We the powerful must protect the strong in order to protect the weak. In welcoming the Bill, I join others in the House and veterans in Heywood and Middleton, many of whom served on Operation Banner, in encouraging the Government to move quickly to provide similar protections for those who have served in Northern Ireland, where comparable prosecutions are a serious concern. I welcome the Government’s indication that legislation will be forthcoming before the end of the year.
I concur with my hon. Friend’s viewpoint. Veterans in Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke have talked relentlessly about the need to bring an end to these vexatious claims, and especially veterans who served in Northern Ireland, where the Staffordshire Regiment was strong. I want to put on record my full support for his comments; we must have this Northern Ireland legislation soon.
My hon. Friend is entirely correct. I say with no shame that I am a law graduate, but I am extremely offended by the behaviour of some of my compatriots, and their wings need to be clipped quite severely.
A lot of people in this country are extremely grateful for the role that our armed services play. I would like to associate myself with them in saying that passing this Bill will go some way to ensuring that the dedication, patriotism and selflessness that our forces show are not undermined by those who seek profit in doing so.
Sadly, I rise to speak in opposition to the Bill, but at the outset, I place on record my enormous respect for all those who have served the UK in uniform and have acted in various theatres around the world with great honour and distinction, and from my perspective, for those who served under Operation Banner in Northern Ireland. In saying that, we have to recognise that at times things have gone very badly wrong in Northern Ireland, and there are legitimate issues around accountability and investigations in that respect.
The Bill is regrettable in its own terms, but we are seeing quite a lot of Members referring to the pending legislation regarding Northern Ireland, and I want to make a couple of comments on that at the outset. Dealing with the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland is an even more thorny and difficult issue than Brexit, to put it in some context. It is something that people have been wrestling with for over 20 years. We have had the basis of some type of agreement through the Stormont House agreement from 2015, which the Government have struggled to implement over the past five years. I want to say this very loud and clear, so that everyone is aware: if this Parliament acts unilaterally over one aspect of legacy in Northern Ireland—around veterans—it will destroy any prospect of an agreed way forward to deal with the contentious past in Northern Ireland. This has to be a rounded process, and it has to involve all the parties in Northern Ireland, the victims’ groups in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government. Those have not been the characteristics of what we have seen so far with the statement from 18 March.
The narrative of vexatious prosecutions is one that I do not recognise. We have seen many claims of this from Ministers and others, but we never hear any reference to particular cases, so it is a narrative. Indeed, it has been debunked on many occasions by eminent persons—most recently, by the Lord Chief Justice in Northern Ireland. I have to say, I am somewhat bemused to see the references to the former Attorney General for Northern Ireland, John Larkin, as somehow the intellectual force behind what is happening, because he has been far from infallible, as many people in Northern Ireland will recognise, over the past number of years.
The triple lock in the Bill will make things more difficult, because it undermines the whole legitimacy of the people who served in Northern Ireland and overseas. They feel they do not need the system to be rigged and changed to give them an advantage. They can stand on their legacy. They were serving to uphold democracy, human rights and good governance—the values we need to project around the world.
Indeed. I see a lack of accountability around those measures. The checks are very ill defined. We have had a pattern of substandard investigations, and that is often what lies behind some of the concern arising from the narrative of vexatious claims: the standard of investigations catches up with that. There will, of course, be the opportunity for more rigorous investigations to happen sooner, when issues are raised, and hopefully that will address the issue. However, whenever I hear references to human rights potentially having to be compromised to get the Bill through and have a new basis for dealing with claims, I think we should all be extremely concerned.
It is worth recalling that one of the very few rights under the European convention that cannot be qualified in any circumstances is the freedom from torture. We should reflect very heavily on that. It is eminently possible for people to serve and have clear rules of engagement that can be respected without going into situations that compromise either human rights law or humanitarian law.