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Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill

Volume 811: debated on Monday 19 April 2021

Third Reading

Relevant documents: 9th Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 30th and 36th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee


Moved by

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass, and it is with pleasure that I make that Motion and propose to make a brief speech.

The Government stood on a manifesto commitment to

“introduce new legislation to tackle the vexatious legal claims that undermine our Armed Forces”,

and they have delivered on that promise. I have said consistently throughout the passage of the Bill that the principles are sound, the objectives are good and the Bill is necessary. The Government believe that the combination of measures in the Bill provides a better and clearer legal framework for dealing with allegations or claims arising from overseas military operations.

The Bill addresses the issue of unacceptable delays in bringing prosecutions and provides greater certainty to veterans for events which happened in the unique context of overseas operations many years ago. The provisions also require that civil claims arising from overseas operations are brought promptly so that the courts are able to assess them when memories are fresh and evidence is more readily available.

The measures recognise both the challenging and extraordinary—I use that word in its literal sense—circumstances of overseas operations and the adverse effects that they can have on our service personnel. These include being exposed to unexpected or continuous threats or being deployed alongside friends and colleagues who are killed or severely wounded in action.

The Bill delivers on a manifesto commitment to our Armed Forces and veterans. It is based on strong support for the proposals by clear majorities in the other place, and it is for these reasons that this House should support the Bill’s Third Reading.

I also thank those of your Lordships across the House who have participated in the various debates. I recognise particularly the contributions of the noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Dannatt, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. While I may not have been able to acquiesce to all their requests, our meetings have been cordial and their contributions constructive.

The Government have listened very carefully to the views put forward throughout the Bill’s progress. However, they do not agree with amendments that undermine rather than strengthen the Bill, are simply not aligned with its aims or would render it incompatible with the United Kingdom’s international obligations.

None the less, I have noted and trenchantly relayed the very real concerns so eloquently and robustly expressed by your Lordships, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, that by not excluding other serious offences, the Bill risks damaging not only the UK’s reputation for upholding international humanitarian and human rights law—including the United Nations convention against torture—but the reputation of our Armed Forces. I am sure that the other place has also heard those deep concerns loudly and clearly.

I also believe that we already offer the highest standards of care and support to our service personnel. I again reaffirm and reassure that the MoD has a long-standing policy that where a serviceperson or veteran faces allegations in relation to incidents arising from his or her duty, they receive full public funding for legal support, as well as welfare and pastoral support, for as long as necessary.

There have been a number of debates on investigations. In addition to requiring prosecutors to give consideration to the public interest in finality, where there has been a relevant previous investigation and no compelling new evidence has become available, we believe that the longstop measures in Part 2 of the Bill will help to reduce the likelihood of investigations being opened many years after operations have ended. Indeed, in the future, the longstops will act as a catalyst for encouraging any civil claims to be brought sooner, and any associated criminal allegations are also therefore likely to be investigated sooner. This reduces the risk of criminal investigations arising many decades later as a result of allegations made in civil claims.

I also remind the House that the review by Sir Richard Henriques into the reporting of allegations and the conduct of investigations on overseas operations is currently in progress. As I have said previously, this work will complement the measures in the Bill, and we should await his recommendations as to whether and what measures may be needed to improve our investigative processes and procedures.

The Bill will shortly move back to the other place for consideration of the amendments proposed by this House. Many of the debates we have had in Committee and on Report have, at times, been emotive. I am sure, however, that all have been born out of our conjoined desire to do the very best we can to support our brave current and former Armed Forces personnel both during and after their operational duties overseas.

In conclusion, I acknowledge and thank profoundly the Bill team led by Damian Parmenter and Jennifer Chamberlain and supported by the Bill manager, Richard Hartell. Their experience, expertise, resilience and patience with an at times crotchety Minister have been invaluable and exemplary. In these comments I embrace—metaphorically, that is—my colleagues: the Advocate-General, my noble and learned friend Lord Stewart, and the Government Whip, my noble friend Lord Younger. I thank them for their steadfast support. I commend the Bill to the House.

My Lords, the Bill goes back to the other place with important changes. Throughout the Bill’s passage, we have wanted to work with the Government and colleagues across the House to improve it. I thank everybody who has engaged with us, including the Minister—the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie—and the Bill team. This positive arrangement resulted in the removal of the derogation clause, which is welcome.

We do not want to wreck the Bill; we do not want to kill the Bill. The Government have identified a real problem: personnel can be plagued by vexatious claims and shoddy investigations. But the Government are approaching the problem from the wrong direction by failing to tackle the issue head-on, damaging our international reputation and threatening the Armed Forces covenant.

The amendments which have been successful in this House put personnel first by recognising the MoD’s responsibility to support troops facing investigation and litigation by placing adequate restrictions on reinvestigations and by ensuring that the Armed Forces covenant is not breached by the longstop. They put forces personnel first because they have been led by noble and gallant leaders in this House. I especially thank the noble Lords, Lord Dannatt and Lord West, and the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Stirrup and Lord Boyce, for their leadership and guidance on these important issues. I also thank former Defence Secretaries and Ministers for their contributions.

The other key amendment extended exclusions from the presumption to cover genocide, torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity. I want to thank my noble friend Lord Robertson for leading this broad coalition.

I also want to thank the Public Bill Office for all its advice and help, the House staff, my two leaders—my noble friends Lord Touhig and Lord Falconer—and my adviser and researcher, Dan Harris, without whom I could not have survived.

My Lords, as the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, have both pointed out, in many ways there is a lot of agreement on this Bill. Although from these Benches at times there were mutterings of “Kill the Bill”, they were not from me as the Front Bench spokesperson on defence; even my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford understands that this is an important Bill and that we are all coming from the same place. Our absolute commitment is to our service men and women and veterans, to getting the right provisions for them, and for dealing with vexatious claims. The question is: what is the best way of dealing with that?

Obviously, as the Minister has said, this Bill was part of a Conservative Party manifesto commitment, but I am also aware that a lot of the issues about vexatious claims and extent go back to Northern Ireland, so at some point I am expecting similar legislation to come forward. I am also expecting that some of the issues that we have debated at various stages of this Bill, particularly those associated with the duty of care, will come back in the context of the Armed Forces Bill later this year. Some of the amendments that were passed—important amendments, as the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, has pointed out—go wider than the narrow confines of this Bill.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, I would like to thank the Minister and also the Advocate-General for Scotland for the time that they spent talking to us and listening to our concerns. I am especially grateful to hear that the noble Baroness has trenchantly taken back our views on what was Amendment 3 on Report. One of the areas on which we have almost unanimous agreement on across the House is that it is appropriate for us to look again at the issues of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture. If the Minister can do one thing, it would be to try to persuade the Government not to force the Commons to vote against that amendment; if it comes back here, we will send it back—it is so important. Clearly, the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, brought forward an important amendment on the duty of care, and if that could be kept in, that would be even more welcome.

I would like to thank the Minister again, the Bill team, my noble friends and also the Liberal Democrat whips’ office, without whom I could not have done what I have done on this Bill either.

My Lords, I begin by thanking all those associated with this Bill, especially the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, the Minister, for patiently attending to the points that we have raised in Committee and on Report. I would also like to echo the words of the noble Lord, Tunnicliffe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for the support that their Benches have given to many of the amendments to this Bill. I would also like to record my appreciation of the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Boyce and Lord Stirrup, for joining me in speaking on behalf of the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force in trying to ensure that, in carrying forward this Bill, the best interests of our service people, both serving and veteran, are attended to.

I would like to congratulate the Government on standing by their manifesto promise to bring forward a Bill of this nature. I believe that the Bill, now amended going forth from your Lordships’ House back to the other place, represents a far more effective way of achieving that manifesto commitment of the Government. Not surprisingly, I would urge that the amendments, particularly on the duty of care, are retained within this Bill and that this Bill now passes through the other place without further reverse amendment. Should a number of our well-intentioned amendments be reversed by the other place, we will have the opportunity of the Armed Forces Bill coming forward quite shortly. I have no doubt that many of the amendments that we have tried to put into this Bill will receive further attention in the Armed Forces Bill, not least of which is the issue of the duty of care. The Ministry of Defence as a caring employer has, indeed, a duty to ensure that they are seen through.

Once again, I thank all those involved, particularly those speakers from the Cross Benches. I hope very much that this Bill now passes in the other place without undue reverse amendment.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, for their comments. I know that they continue to give me a message, and I continue to listen to the message.

Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.