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British Servicemen: Vexatious Law Suits

Volume 774: debated on Wednesday 19 October 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to prevent vexatious law suits being brought against British servicemen.

My Lords, the Prime Minister has recently reaffirmed that the Government will put an end to the industry of vexatious claims. As a first step, we have already announced that the Government intend to derogate from the relevant articles of the European Convention on Human Rights in future conflicts whenever that is considered appropriate. We hope to announce further measures shortly.

At the last election, the Conservative manifesto promised that our Armed Forces would not be subject to “persistent” legal claims that,

“undermine their ability to do their job”.

As the Minister said, the Prime Minister said in her conference speech that,

“we will never again in any future conflict”,

allow Britain’s Armed Forces to be harassed. However, the Defence Secretary contradicted her in a statement last week when he said that we will act to stop such claims only where this is appropriate. Our forces are subject to UK service law and allegations of criminal activity are rightly investigated. However, under this Government a whole industry of vexatious allegations against the men and women of our Armed Forces has flourished. So will the Minister tell us: is the Government’s policy the one set out by the Prime Minister or the one set out by the Defence Secretary?

My Lords, there is no contradiction. As the noble Lord rightly said, the vast majority of service personnel deployed on operations overseas have acted in accordance with the law and their training. However, where credible criminal allegations are made, we must investigate in accordance with our legal obligations. What we need to do is strip out the vexatious claims. That is why we are taking a range of measures, as I am sure the noble Lord is aware.

My Lords, what combat immunity or other legal protection have the Government arranged for Armed Forces personnel currently engaged in armed conflict in the air or on the ground, in the light of the views expressed by the Prime Minister?

As regards combat immunity, the Government have previously made it clear that we will not rule out legislating, which is being considered among a range of options. It has been suggested that we should simply reinstate Section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act; that is one of the options we are looking at, but it would be possible only under certain specific circumstances. No plans are in train for any immediate change on that front.

My Lords, I have professional experience of fraudulent claims and of legitimate claims like the Baha Mousa case, where the deceased received 95 injuries before he died. I note that the Ministry of Defence has settled 326 claims at a cost of £32 million; I assume that those were legitimate claims. Do the Government now intend to abolish or prevent all claims being brought by prisoners or civilians who are injured in the course of operations, regardless of whether they are legitimate or vexatious?

As the noble Lord is aware, the Iraq Historic Allegations Team looks into these allegations, which have totalled more than 3,300 to date. The current case load is around 1,600 and it expects to reduce that number to 250 by next January. We cannot simply close it down, because that would mean leaving these allegations open to referral to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, with the possibility of trials there. We must therefore investigate properly in this country.

My Lords, of course it is absolutely right that all our troops should be subject to international humanitarian law. My noble friend has described the first step the Government have taken. I suggest two further steps: putting combat immunity on a firm statutory basis, as the noble and gallant Lord suggested—there is far too ambiguity about its scope—and considering restricting the territorial scope of the Human Rights Act, which it was once thought clearly applied only within the United Kingdom.

I am grateful to my noble friend. The proposal he makes is being looked at. We have no current plan to amend the Human Rights Act. As and when a British Bill of Rights is presented to Parliament, this is no doubt a matter that can be debated in that context.

My Lords, can the noble Earl say why ex-military are treated in a different way in Northern Ireland when it comes to investigation of historic crimes? Surely there is a requirement to look on an equal basis at all these cases, be it a legacy case that includes the military or some other person within Northern Ireland. Why are they treated differently?

My Lords, we are acutely mindful of the impact of any allegations against service personnel, particularly veterans and their families. Where veterans are involved in processes that arise out of alleged actions during their service, we will provide legal support as necessary—regardless of the length of an individual’s service or the time that has elapsed since the events occurred. It is always possible for us to look at improving the way we support veterans—and indeed serving personnel—and we are happy to look at anything in that area.

But my Lords, is not the PSNI legacy unit pursuing soldiers who committed acts 41 years ago, the cases against whom have been dismissed on at least two occasions? This means that people in their 70s are being arrested and charged, yet the other people who were in their patrol are already dead and cannot give evidence for them.

My noble friend makes a powerful point. We want to process expeditiously any such cases where there is credible evidence. That is why we are supporting the creation of the historical investigations unit, which will roll into one some of the functions of the ombudsman and the Police Service of Northern Ireland and create efficiencies in the process. The life of that body will be limited to five years, which should provide some assurance that cases will not be allowed to drag on.