Thank you for taking the time to email me about the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which had its Second Reading in Parliament this week. This Bill has been designed to give veterans and service personnel the protections required in prosecution cases. As you are aware, there is a presumption against prosecution over allegations which happened more than 5 years ago. However, the Bill makes clear there are exemptions to the 5-year principle. If an exceptional case is brought forward, then it will be pursued.
I understand you will perhaps have concerns regarding the incorrect use of this piece of legislation. Victims of torture will need to know that their allegations will be taken with the utmost seriousness and I am confident the Bill makes provision for the correct course of justice to be maintained. This Bill is simply not an amnesty, nor a statute of limitations and it does not prevent allegations of wrongdoing more than 5 years ago - including war crimes and torture - from being investigated and, where appropriate, prosecuted. A decision on whether to prosecute for such crimes will continue to be for the independent prosecutor to make - the Bill does not change this position.
Veterans Minister, Johnny Mercer MP, made it clear at the Despatch Box in the House of Commons that ‘this legislation is not about providing an amnesty or putting troops above the law but protecting them from lawyer’s intent on rewriting history to line their own pockets.’
I firmly do believe this Bill will protect the armed forces from vexatious prosecutions and ensure justice is delivered fairly, as it introduces a statutory presumption against prosecution. This Bill was promised in our 2019 manifesto and was partly prompted by the case of lawyer Phil Shiner, who brought abuse claims against UK troops after the Iraq War.
It is absolutely right service personnel are held to the highest standards of behaviour and conduct. This Bill ensures credible allegations are investigated and pursued where necessary, but also our Armed Forces will be protected from the vexatious claims and repeated investigations that so many have suffered in recent years.
Commenting on the Bill at the Despatch Box, the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace MP, insisted the Bill is "not an amnesty... or the decriminalisation of erroneous acts". He went on to emphasise service personnel who break the law will be investigated, but did make the point that "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."
The UK is world leading role in the promotion and protection of human rights, and unreserved condemnation of the use of torture remains firmly in place. This Government remains committed to our obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, including the UN Convention Against Torture. Nothing in this Bill changes this position.
This Bill is the first part of a series of measures to improve our country’s ability to withstand lawfare – a medium through which modern conflicts are becoming increasingly fought. This includes a review of how we conduct investigations - and crucially the time it takes to do so to ensure the highest levels of confidence in our operations. Similarly, there is a significant programme of information and education running alongside the progress of the Bill, to ensure our Service men and women are fully aware of their rights and responsibilities if they – rightly – sue the MoD when things go wrong.
But the days of exposing our Service personnel to a totally unregulated environment which has spawned a multi-million pound fraudulent industry of claims and repeated criminal investigations with no new evidence, all the while ruining the lives of the people who defend our country, are coming to an end under this Government. I firmly support this and therefore voted for it and in doing so we protect our troops who protect us daily.