Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill Debate

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Department: Ministry of Defence
After Second Reading, I for one came away with a strong sense that the stated aims of the Bill and what is in Part 1 do not hold together very well. As the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford both implied, there is real concern about how, if we impose presumptions against prosecution that include genocide, torture and other war crimes, our service men and women would feel if similar legislation were laid in other countries and they could not bring cases.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton Portrait Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Lab) [V]
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The debate has been very impressive. I take this opportunity to make special mention of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon. I was Solicitor-General when he was the Attorney-General. As he pointed out, he served in the Armed Forces and was an incredibly effective Attorney-General, and he proved to me that as the Attorney-General you can ensure that the law is complied with in circumstances where you have a profound understanding of the pressures on the military.

There are, in effect, two proposals before the House in this group of amendments. One is to extend the period of presumption from five to 10 years. The other is to get rid of the presumption altogether. This part of the Bill deals only with criminal offences. I think that everybody in the House is of a like mind in the following two respects.

First, Members of the House have no desire whatever to authorise in any way members of our Armed Forces committing very serious crimes, such as crimes against the United Nations convention against torture or any other sorts of war crimes, or murder or manslaughter.

Secondly, and separately, everybody in the House understands the oppression of there being what my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti described as shoddy, lengthy and repeat investigations. Nobody wants our Armed Forces to have to go through shoddy, lengthy and repeat investigations. What I think everybody wants is that there should be timely, effective and thorough investigations, and that when the timely, effective and thorough investigation is completed, the soldier or other military personnel can be confident that that is the end of it.

That is not the position at the moment. The proposal for a presumption against prosecution after five or 10 years does not deal with that problem. The best way to deal with the problem is to have effective investigations and, after the investigation is over, for there to be a limitation in some way on any further investigation unless compelling evidence comes to light that justifies reopening an investigation which the military personnel who is the subject of the investigation can otherwise be entitled to assume is at an end.

I have no idea why the Government are going about trying to deliver on what everybody thinks is a laudable aim—namely, to protect military personnel from shoddy, repeat and inadequate investigations—by this presumption. There appears to be agreement among those who would know that the proposal that is being advanced by the Government does not deal with the problem. Johnny Mercer, in Committee in the other place, said:

“I want to reassure Members that the presumption measure is not an attempt to cover up past events as it does not prevent an investigation to credible allegations of wrongdoing in the past, and neither does it prevent the independent prosecutor from determining that a case should go forward to prosecution.”—[Official Report, Commons, 14/10/20; col. 154.]

Judge Blackett, who used to be the Advocate-General—the chief judge in the military justice system—said:

“a presumption against prosecution would not stop the knock on the door and the investigation. That is the whole point. The presumption against prosecution does not stop the investigation; the investigation happens.”

The noble Lord, Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton, said that we should not be too legalistic about this. I think he meant that we have to produce a solution to the problem. I completely agree. Later amendments in the group make it clear that there should be reinvestigation only where there is compelling evidence. Some of the amendments suggest, for example, that a judge would have to authorise further investigations to give the protection that is required and, in the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, to take away the dark shadow of prosecution.

I am very interested in these amendments. I am very keen to deliver on the purpose of the Bill, as is everybody else. I do not believe that the five-year presumption does that, and I would be very interested to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, respond to the points made by Johnny Mercer and Judge Blackett as to the fact that the Bill does not deliver on its purpose.

Three other points militate against either the five-year presumption or any presumption at all. First, this will create a special category of defence. It will in effect lead to there being a special category of criminal offences for which there is a presumption against prosecution. John Healey in another place put it very well when he said:

“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 our unequivocal commitment to upholding international law that we in Britain ourselves, after the Second World War, helped to establish.”—[Official Report, Commons, 23/9/20; cols. 997-98.]

We should not be doing what John Healey described. We should be doing what the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, hopes we should be doing. Let us do it in a direct and effective way rather than in this oblique, obscure and ineffective way.

The second reason why the presumption does not work is that it may be illegal. I would very much like to hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, has to say about the points made in the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ ninth report of this Session, which says that it offends against Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the United Nations Convention against Torture, the Rome Statute, and customary international law. The report is basically saying that, if you could have a presumption against prosecution where there is evidence that would justify a prosecution and the public interest favours it, why is that not contrary to the five commitments that the country has made legally?

The third point is the involvement of the International Criminal Court. We as a country ought to be prosecuting these offences, not the ICC. The noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, will know that the ICC’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said last week in a letter to the British Government that the presumption against prosecution could

“render such cases admissible before the ICC.”

How have the Government reached such a different conclusion to that of the ICC’s chief prosecutor? Does the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, believe that the ICC has misunderstood the Bill? Is she confident that the consequence of the Bill will not be to replace one uncertainty with another, namely that our military personnel may well face long investigations and then long prosecutions in the ICC, which nobody wants? I believe it is incredibly important that our justice system and in particular our military justice system produces an answer to the problem that this part of the Bill seeks to address, but I am anxious that it will be ineffective in doing that, it will send out a signal that we are not complying with international law, and it will lead to more prosecutions in the ICC.

Baroness Goldie Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Goldie) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, and all other noble Lords for their contributions to a wide-ranging and—I certainly accept—thought-provoking discussion this afternoon. I have listened to the debate closely. We have covered extensive territory across the principles of the Bill. Before I turn to the individual amendments in the first group, I will address the range of Clauses 1 to 7 of Part 1, which a number of your Lordships would wish to remove. It may be helpful if I clarify the Government’s intent in proposing these provisions, and perhaps I should restate why there is a Bill at all.

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Moved by
3: Clause 2, leave out Clause 2 and insert the following new Clause—
“Ability to conduct a fair trial
The principle referred to in section 1(1) is that a relevant prosecutor making a decision to which that section applies may determine that proceedings should be brought against the person for the offence, or, as the case may be, that the proceedings against the person for the offence should be continued, only if the prosecutor has reasonable grounds for believing that the fair trial of the person has not been materially prejudiced by the time elapsed since the alleged conduct took place.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause replaces the presumption against prosecution with a requirement on a prosecutor deciding whether to bring or continue a prosecution to consider whether the passage of time has materially prejudiced the prospective defendant’s chance of a fair trial.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton Portrait Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, in this group I shall address Amendments 3, 5, 6, 17 and 28. This group seeks, in a variety of ways, to deal with a problem that the Minister identified in her helpful concluding remarks on the last group—namely, stopping the endless shoddy reinvestigations, because that is the real problem.

Since the year 2000 there have been 27 prosecutions in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Ministry of Defence gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which led to its ninth report, dealing with this Bill. The Bill team co-ordinator—I think that was his exact title—Mr Damian Parmenter, did not identify as the problem that the wrong decisions had been made in relation to prosecutions. He identified that the problem was with the reinvestigations, as did Mr Mercer in the other place and Judge Blackett. We need to address the issue directly, not indirectly. The question that I had asked and was waiting most keenly to be answered by the Minister was how the Bill dealt with this presumption—and answer came there none from the Minister, I would submit. If the issue is not the decision about prosecution but the endless process of investigation, this Bill does not deal with it.

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I have listened to eloquent and erudite arguments in support of this amendment, and I undertake to look again at the comments made in case I have misunderstood the arguments or have misapplied my own interpretation of what the amendment means. I shall look closely at the contributions which have been offered. In the meantime, I ask the noble and learned Lord to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton Portrait Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Lab) [V]
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I am obliged for the detailed and very careful reply that the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, gave, and I am particularly grateful to her for overriding instructions—that is the wrong word—given to her by the Government Whips. I am also appreciative of the very rich debate we have just had. I will draw attention to three particular interventions. First, my noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton expressed the view that everybody subsequently expressed, including the Minister, that it is the lengthy investigations that we are trying to deal with here. Secondly, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, made the point that the real evil here is investigation and reinvestigation; and, thirdly, my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti said, “Look, this presumption that the Government are relying on about exceptionality will not provide much protection when you see the low numbers of prosecutions that have been given.”

I earnestly ask the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, to consider carefully the points that have been made in the course of this debate by everybody. I am increasingly concerned about the presumption. It does not do the trick, because it does not provide the reassurance that is required. It raises very problematic questions of international law, it does not deal with very many cases, and it risks bringing in the ICC. So it will not give the reassurance that the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, and the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, are looking for. There were signs that the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, in supporting Amendment 28, might be beginning to support some of the proposals that we are making.

So I earnestly ask the noble Baroness to think again about this, because we are united in what we are trying to achieve, and the presumption in Clause 2 does not do it. Of course I beg leave to withdraw my amendment, but we will certainly return to these issues on Report, because this is the heart of the Bill.

Amendment 3 withdrawn.
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Moved by
10: Clause 5, page 3, line 29, at end insert—
“(3A) Where the consent of the Attorney General is sought under subsection (2) or (3), the Attorney General must prepare a report containing his or her reasons for granting or withholding consent, as the case may be, with reference to sections 1 to 3 of this Act, and must lay a copy of this report before each House of Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires the Attorney General to lay out their evidence and assessment as to why they granted or refused consent to prosecute.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton Portrait Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Lab) [V]
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There are three amendments in this group, Amendments 10, 11 and 12, which deal with the question of the need for the consent of the Attorney-General before a prosecution covered by the presumption goes ahead. This is an important but quite short series of issues; in effect, the Bill is adding in the consent of the Attorney-General as the third part of the triple lock, before prosecution is brought against military personnel in respect of overseas operations. Therefore, the consent will be required only when a prosecutor has decided that a case where over five years have gone by is exceptional, and the Attorney-General’s consent, or lack of it, will be of real significance only when he or she does not give it.

The consequences of the Attorney-General not giving consent are, in my view, threefold. First, it may well give rise to suggestions that the issue has been politicised. Secondly, the Attorney-General is very frequently involved in making or overriding decisions made in relation to operations overseas. For example, the Attorney-General will often give instruction and advice in relation to conditions of detention. It is worth reading the evidence given by Nicholas Mercer to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, where he described the involvement of the Attorney General’s Office in decisions that he had been involved in as a lawyer when, in foreign theatres of war, the use of force was involved. As such, my second point is that the Attorney-General may well have been involved in decisions that affect that theatre of war. From my own experience as Solicitor-General, I can tell you that that was indeed the case.

My third point is that, if the Attorney-General is going to override the prosecutor’s view that a prosecution should be brought, he will inevitably be increasing the risk that the matter is referred to or taken up by the ICC—because it will see a case where the prosecutor thinks that the prosecution has an over-50% chance of success and the public interest allows it, yet the Attorney-General has not allowed it to go ahead. Fourthly, if the Attorney-General is overriding the view of the prosecutor, which is the only time when this would be significant, questions will arise as to whether that puts the United Kingdom in breach of a whole range of international obligations—the Geneva convention, the United Nations Convention against Torture, Articles 2 and 3 of the human rights convention and the Rome convention, which is the International Criminal Court statute, in effect.

As such, our amendments first require the Attorney-General to give “reasons” as to whether he is giving or withholding consent, and laying them before Parliament. Secondly, Amendment 11 proposes that he must consider whether refusing consent will

“increase the likelihood of the International Criminal Court exercising its own competence”.

Thirdly, Amendment 12 proposes that he must consider whether his refusing consent would constitute a “breach of international law”. These amendments are laid by way of probing. We have real concerns about this provision and that it will not provide added protection but will instead give rise to very significant legal risks. I beg to move.

Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl) [V]
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My Lords, these amendments seek to make the Attorney-General and the Advocate-General for Northern Ireland more accountable in relation to what we might call “late prosecutions”, and in particular more accountable to Parliament. The obligation in Amendment 10 provides for a report to Parliament in the event of either the granting or withholding of consent for such a prosecution. I accept what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said—that there may be more interest in circumstances where the Attorney-General does not consent to a prosecution.

Amendment 11 provides that the Attorney-General should give consent if there is an increased likelihood of ICC involvement. In Amendment 12 he or she must give consent if not doing so would lead to a breach of international law. Normally, advice from law officers to the Government is not disclosed to Parliament—nor even is the fact that advice has been sought—so to some extent these amendments are a bit of a novelty.

I have considered a number of lawyers’ views about whether the courts, as opposed to Parliament, could be involved in reviewing a decision by the Attorney-General either to consent to a prosecution or not to consent. The balance of view seems to be a cautious yes, although the courts would be expected to exercise a so-called “light-touch review”. In other words, it is unlikely that the courts would quash a decision of this sort.

I was most interested to hear what the noble and learned Lord said about these amendments because, on reading them, I was not quite sure what would be in the report proposed for receipt by Parliament. What would the law officer have to say? Would he or she simply cite public interest, gravity of offences and reasonable prospect of conviction in the event of a decision to prosecute, and presumably the opposite in the event of a decision not to prosecute? I suppose there might be some reference to the length of time between the acts concerned and the decision to prosecute. Of course, he or she would not be expected to give detailed reasons on the strengths of a particular witness or worries about one aspect of the evidence, or something of that sort. I am not sure what Parliament is going to do with that information, but I accept that accountability to Parliament is generally desirable.

As to the obligation under Amendment 11 in relation to the ICC, my understanding of the ICC—and I have attended one of its conferences in Rome—is that it is a court devoted to the macro rather than the micro, as I said when referring to the evidence of Major Campbell. It is also concerned mostly with offences at a high level.

Such prosecutions are often quasi-political—and I do not mean that in a pejorative sense. I recall that the perceived political element of the court was such that a number of countries walked out of the conference in Rome in the first few minutes as a protest at the alleged political element. Of course, the Rome statute is one to which the United States of America is not a signatory.

In one sense, the failure to prosecute or a decision not to prosecute by the Attorney-General must mean that there is an increased likelihood of ICC involvement, although I am not sure how that can be assessed. I entirely support our involvement with the ICC, but there are often complex reasons, including the availability of resources, which determine whether or not there are prosecutions. Our general support for the ICC as an institution should not be diluted in any way, but I am not sure that fear of ICC involvement should mean that the Attorney-General cannot come to the conclusion he or she thinks appropriate in these circumstances.

Similarly, the question of a putative breach of international law seems to me to be rather superfluous. There is an obligation, as I understand it, on the part of the law officers, as Ministers, to comply with the Ministerial Code. That obligation includes an obligation to obey the law, including international law. I do not want to revisit the difficult territory covered by the internal market Bill, but my understanding of the Ministerial Code, and I am on record as saying as much in your Lordships’ House, is that the obligation includes international as well as domestic law—although sometimes international law may not be as easily ascertainable—so I am not currently aware of the need for this extra obligation.

I acknowledge that these amendments are essentially probing, so that Parliament can understand better the process by which the Attorney-General would be involved in so-called late prosecutions. I share the interest of the noble and learned Lord in how the process might work generally, but I am not for the moment persuaded that any of these amendments is either appropriate or necessary.

Finally, I am uneasy about the alleged political component of the Attorney-General’s involvement. I think the role of the Attorney-General in this sort of circumstance is pre-eminently not a political one, but it is ironic that the involvement of Parliament in some way that is envisaged by these amendments could, in fact, run the risk of some important boundaries being crossed.

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Baroness Goldie Portrait Baroness Goldie (Con)
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My Lords, this has been perhaps a narrower debate in relation to interesting legal issues but none the less, once again, productive and fertile. I realise that these amendments are the product of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thoroton, who has applied his considerable legal gifts to their drafting.

As has been explained, Amendments 10, 11 and 12 to Clause 5 seek to place a requirement on the Attorney-General to report to Parliament with the reasons for granting or withholding consent. The requirement in Clause 5 is that the consent of the Attorney-General for England and Wales, or the Advocate-General for Northern Ireland, has to be given before a case of an alleged offence committed by a serviceperson more than five years earlier on an overseas operation can proceed to prosecution. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, asked what the Attorney-General was doing in this Bill. We have introduced the consent function because it is important for service personnel and veterans to be confident that their case will be considered with care at the highest levels of our justice system.

The Attorney-General is left to discharge that obligation independently. As the Committee is aware, requiring the consent of the Attorney-General for a prosecution is not unusual. She already has numerous other consent functions, including for the institution of all prosecutions for war crimes offences under the International Criminal Court Act 2001—nor does it mean that the Government have any role to play in a decision on consent. It is a constitutional principle that, when taking a decision on whether to consent to a prosecution, the Attorney-General acts quasi-judicially and independently of government, applying the well-established prosecution principles of evidential sufficiency and public interest. I seem to remember that on Second Reading my noble friend Lord Faulks articulated that position very eloquently, and I think that it is generally understood.

We feel that it is not appropriate for the Attorney-General to comment on any individual or ongoing investigation or prosecution. I am aware of no statutory requirement anywhere else for the Attorney-General to report in relation to individual casework decisions. We do not believe, therefore, that it would be appropriate to introduce such a requirement in the Bill. As I have said elsewhere, preserving the independence and discretion of the prosecutor is vital to the Part 1 measures. Without this, we cannot ensure that cases are treated fairly, nor can we prevent the ICC from stepping in. Adding a measure to the Bill that would require the Attorney-General to make a public statement before Parliament about specific prosecutions would quite simply interfere with that discretion. That would be an unusual and, I suggest, unwise innovation. Interestingly, critics of the Bill have expressed concern that giving the Attorney-General a role in Part 1 risks introducing politics into what should be a criminal justice process. Indeed, the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady Chakrabarti, voiced these concerns. We do not agree that this is true for the Bill as drafted, but I pose the question: surely these amendments risk that precise outcome. Certainly my noble friend Lord Faulks confirmed that apprehension.

Amendments 11 and 12 would require the Attorney-General to make a prediction about whether the International Criminal Court will exercise its competence in a particular case, make a judgment about whether a prosecution would

“lead to a breach of international law”,

and then compel her to act in a certain way. I think that even the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, would agree that both these amendments would be an unprecedented extension of the normal consent function that the Attorney-General has in relation to the prosecution of offences. The International Criminal Court is an independent body, and it would be inappropriate for the Attorney-General to speculate about or pre-empt decisions that the International Criminal Court might make. Again, my noble friend Lord Faulks commented on that. The phrase “international law” is included in Amendment 12 but is undefined. It is not clear which international laws the amendment is attempting to incorporate into the Bill.

In my opinion, we should allow the evidence that has been produced to the prosecutor, and the public interest, to speak for itself in each individual case, considered by an independent prosecutor, using their discretion. We should not force the Attorney-General to potentially compromise his or her independence in a particular case by adjudicating on these other matters. For that reason, I ask the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton Portrait Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Lab) [V]
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I am obliged to everyone who participated in the debate and to the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, for the care with which she answered the questions raised.

As the debate went on, I became increasingly concerned about the involvement of the Attorney-General. I am a very strong believer in the necessity for a Minister in the Government who has functions to protect the rule of law in the way in which the Attorney-General does in the Government of the United Kingdom and the Lord Advocate does in the Government of Scotland. In relation to the criminal justice system, including for the military, it is critical that the Attorney-General is, and is seen to be, politically independent of the Government in a way in which the current Attorney-General, Suella Braverman, did not seem to be in relation to the Dominic Cummings question. There are also questions over the Lord Advocate in Scotland in relation to the redaction of Mr Salmond’s evidence to the constitutional committee.

What is being proposed here is, in effect, a circumstance in which the Attorney-General will override the view of a prosecutor. If the Attorney-General agrees with the prosecutor on bringing a prosecution, and the decision will only come to the Attorney-General once a decision has been made to prosecute, he or she will be overriding that decision. If the provision is to remain in the Bill, only if the Attorney-General or the Advocate-General explains why he or she is doing that will there be a sense that politics has not intervened. Only if he or she gives reasons that stand up to scrutiny will a sense of political involvement be removed.

I completely accept that my proposal is novel and would not constitute formal advice, and I accept the point made by a number of noble Lords that it would break with precedent. However, it is so important to preserve the evident independence of the Attorney-General. I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, said to the Joint Committee on Human Rights that in performing this function, the Attorney-General would be acting entirely independently of government. If he or she says no to a prosecution that a professional prosecutor has said should go ahead, they should explain.

I will of course think carefully about what noble Lords have said in this debate but, for now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 10 withdrawn.
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Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD) [V]
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My Lords, unlike the first group of amendments, this group—particularly Amendment 14—has very broad support across your Lordships’ House. That is scarcely surprising because one of the very clear omissions from the Bill was precisely the group of crimes so eloquently outlined in the opening remarks by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen.

It is clearly right that one of the exemptions from the presumption is sexual violence—that is fine—but it is a glaring omission to leave other war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture and genocide off the face of the Bill. Indeed, it has been raised at every stage of the Bill. It was raised on Second Reading in the other place and many times on Second Reading in your Lordships’ House. I have only one question to ask the Minister: how can she and the Government justify this omission?

As Members across the Committee have said, it is so important for the reputation of our country that we abide by the rule of law and the conventions which we have signed up to and have so often led. As a country, we pride ourselves on supporting certain values, including opposing torture, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is inconceivable that we should say that this is anything that the Armed Forces or we as a country should condone.

My only sense from the Minister, in private meetings and her response to the debate at Second Reading regarding having sexual offences going against presumption but not other war crimes, was that there would never be a case on the battlefield when use of sexual violence was sanctioned. That seems to suggest that genocide, torture or other war crimes could be sanctioned. Surely that is not what the Minister meant or what the Government mean. Were there ever to be a case of torture or genocide—God forbid—surely we should be leading the way in ensuring that it is investigated and prosecuted. The reason it is so important to have this in the Bill is precisely to demonstrate our commitment to upholding human rights and not falling down any cracks.

I am absolutely sure that nobody would willingly commit any of these crimes, and I do not think that very many cases would ever even be investigated, but the amendments need to be in the Bill to ensure that we are not resiling from the conventions that we have signed up to. The noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, who I do not think has participated on this group of amendments, earlier prayed in aid Major Bob Campbell, who had said that he would not be taken to the ICC, and it might have been better to be in front of the ICC than subject to protracted and repeated investigations. The reason that service men and women and veterans from the United Kingdom have not been taken to the ICC is precisely because of our respect for international law.

Why are the Government creating a piece of legislation that leaves such a large hole and potentially damages our reputation? It would be much better to amend the Bill, to have it include war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture, and ensure that if anyone were accused of such a crime, it would be investigated and prosecuted if necessary and there would not then be a stain. A great problem is the sense that there is a shadow hanging over somebody and the feeling of “If only it hadn’t been for that presumption” or “Because of that presumption, we are now being taken to the Hague”. Surely that is not a position the Government want to leave anybody in.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton Portrait Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, this has been an incredibly instructive debate. Every single speaker has spoken in favour of Amendment 14 in a debate that has lasted an hour, and they could not have been more diverse in their experience: lawyers, military people, senior politicians. We have had the whole range, and they have all spoken in favour of Amendment 14.

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Moved by
18: After Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—
“Time limit for commencing proceedings for minor offences
After section 60 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 insert—“60A Time limit for minor offences(1) A person may not be charged in respect of a minor offence carried out in the course of overseas operations after the end of six months beginning with the day on which the offence is alleged to have been committed. (2) In this section—“minor offence” means—(a) any offence committed by a member of a regular or reserve force which would be in the jurisdiction of the Service Civilian Court if committed by a civilian; (b) any offence capable of being dealt with at a summary hearing under section 53 or 54;“overseas operations” has the meaning given in section 1(6) of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021.””
Lord Falconer of Thoroton Portrait Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, this is a self-contained point rather outside the mainstream of the other issues that we have been dealing with, but an important amendment trying to provide a degree of certainty to military personnel engaged in overseas operations. The amendment seeks to provide that, where a minor offence is committed that would be triable within the Armed Forces criminal justice system, there should be a six-month time limit from the date the offence is committed for bringing proceedings. So, after six months have elapsed from the date of the offence, if no proceedings have been brought it cannot be prosecuted. This provision mirrors Section 127 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 and reflects the sensible proposition that, in relation to minor offences, you should know where you stand.

I am not sure whether the drafting has precisely achieved this; I would be interested in the Minister’s views on whether we need to make any changes. However, I am absolutely sure that the principle is sound: in relation to minor offences, there should be a shortish time limit of six months, so that the system is not cluttered up with old offences of a certain lack of severity. I beg to move.

Lord Lexden Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Lexden) (Con)
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My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, whose name is next on the list, has withdrawn so I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford.

Baroness Goldie Portrait Baroness Goldie (Con)
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My Lords, it is interesting that we conclude our consideration of Part 1 of the Bill with a genuinely interesting proposition from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, so neatly encapsulated by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford.

The amendment seeks to introduce, via a new section to be inserted in the Armed Forces Act 2006, a six-month limitation period between an offence being committed or discovered and any proceedings being brought, where certain conditions are satisfied. As I understand the proposal, the amendment would create a six-month limitation period for all offences capable of being dealt with at a summary hearing under Section 53 of the Armed Forces Act 2006. It is worth observing that this category of offence includes a large number of matters that are specific to a military context.

Section 53 covers, for example, the offence of being absent without leave, under Section 9 of the Armed Forces Act 2006; the offence of disobedience to lawful commands, under Section 12; the offence of contravention of standing orders, under Section 13; and the offence of disclosure of information useful to an enemy, under Section 17. These, and many more offences like them, are vital to maintaining discipline and operational effectiveness in the Armed Forces. The amendment proposes that none of these should be capable of leading to punishment after six months. With the greatest respect to the noble and learned Lord, I think that that is unwise.

During any investigation, it is not always clear at the outset what the charge will be, but this is made harder for investigations on overseas operations, particularly where the injured person or witness is a local national. As I have already set out in response to other investigation-related amendments, investigations on overseas operations are subject to greater complexity than those conducted back in the UK, and delays can occur. However, placing what is actually quite a short time limit on investigations is unhelpful. In my view, we should not be seeking to do anything that would fetter the investigative decision-making of the service police. A time limit in these circumstances would do just that.

Even the most minor offences take on a greater significance in an operational environment and, if we reflect on some of the offences to which I have just referred, I think your Lordships would understand the import of that. A minor offence is not necessarily a simple matter that can be dealt with quickly by a commanding officer, and minor offences committed against local nationals can have a disproportionate effect in an operational setting.

I think that this amendment is modelled upon the provisions that exist in relation to summary-only matters in the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980, which is why I find it problematic. The Magistrates’ Courts Act codifies the procedures applicable in the magistrates’ courts of England and Wales. This legislation is not written to accommodate the extraordinary demands made of a system operating in an operational context where, as I have already said, delays can sometimes occur as a result. Applying civilian timescales to an operational context is therefore not appropriate.

I appreciate that the amendment has been offered in good spirit by the noble and learned Lord. I thank him for the breadth of thought in investigating that aspect, but I urge him to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton Portrait Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Lab) [V]
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I am grateful to the Minister for her very careful reply. I understood her to make two particular points: first, that six months may be too short, particularly in an overseas operational environment and, secondly, that it may not be appropriate in dealing with certain sorts of military offences, for example, disobedience to orders, particularly in an overseas context.

I hear what the noble Baroness has said and I will think very carefully about two things. First, does one need a longer period and, secondly, should one exclude certain specifically military offences? However, if it were possible, I would be keen to find a way forward on this because although the points she makes have some degree of validity, I also think that for comparatively minor offences it is disproportionate for military personnel still to be investigated for some months or even years after the comparatively minor offence has been allegedly committed. Of course I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 18 withdrawn.
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Moved by
19: Clause 8, page 6, line 8, after “forces,” insert “except where it would be inequitable for an action in respect of a personal injury or death which could have occurred in the United Kingdom to be subject to a different time limit if it occurred overseas,”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that a court can disapply the civil longstop if the same equipment or cause of negligence results in injury or death in overseas operations as in the UK.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton Portrait Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Lab) [V]
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We move on to a different part of the Bill, which seeks to impose more rigorous time limits for bringing civil actions, whether in accordance with the ordinary law of tort or contract, or under the Human Rights Act. Although I am slightly oversimplifying, the Bill essentially seeks to impose a six-year unextendable deadline for bringing civil claims in respect of the conduct of the military, except where knowledge occurs after the six years, in which case there is a further 12-month extension. This is in contradistinction to the normal position whereby a claim would be brought not arising out of overseas operations where the court would have an ability to extend the time for bringing a claim if it were equitable to do so.

In these amendments, we focus on two particular circumstances. First, where a claim is being brought by someone within the military against, in effect, the Government for a breach of human rights or a tortious claim, we take the view that we should not be providing additional limitation hurdles in respect of military personnel bringing claims against the MoD—for example, for the negligent provision of defective equipment. I should be interested to hear why the Government think that there should be such a limitation. As a subgroup, primarily dealing with military personnel but able to deal with others also, if, in relation to an identical claim that had occurred in the UK, somebody could bring a claim and have the limitation period extended if it were equitable to do so, we cannot see any reason why in identical circumstances such a claim could not also be brought, even though the circumstances or damage arose in the course of overseas operations.

For example, if the Ministry of Defence provided defective equipment to a soldier and, as a result, the soldier suffered serious injury in an exercise on Salisbury Plain, why should a soldier who suffers precisely the same injury while on an overseas operation because of the negligent provision of defective equipment by the Ministry of Defence have a shorter and harsher limitation period than the soldier who was injured in precisely the same circumstances for precisely the same reasons in an exercise on Salisbury Plain? For example, they were both injured not necessarily because of the activities of enemy insurgents against them but because all the forms of transport provided were defective in a way that was the fault of the Ministry of Defence. The injury would have occurred whether one was driving along a road in Wiltshire or a road in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is unfair that there should be different limitations for precisely the same sorts of injury.

Two questions arise on this group of amendments. First, why should there be different limitation periods for the military bringing claims against the Ministry of Defence? Secondly and separately, even if there is a reason for that, why should there be a different limitation period for precisely the same injury, the only difference being that it was caused in the course of overseas operations rather than at home, for example? We are aware of the problems that have arisen in relation to many claims being brought—and many failing—arising out of overseas operations. We are all aware of those circumstances, but we are very concerned that, in trying to deal with that multiplicity of claims, the Government are unfairly depriving military personnel of their legitimate right to protect their rights against the Ministry of Defence.

It is very important that the limitation period be fair for claims by military personnel because, for a whole variety of reasons that those engaged in the military will be aware of, there may be very good reasons why a member of the military takes a long time to discover either that they could bring a claim or that they are in an emotional or mental position to bring a claim because of their experiences. We think these provisions are very detrimental and unfair to military personnel and require amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD) [V]
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My Lords, at this time of the evening it would be very easy simply to agree with everything the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, has just said and be happy to move on, but that would do a disservice to our service men and women and veterans, because the points these amendments speak to and the words the noble and learned Lord has just uttered are extremely important. It is surely appropriate that we treat our service personnel and veterans with respect, and that they should not be disadvantaged because they have been service men and women.

Clearly, incidents and dangers can happen in the field of battle that will not be legislated for in a conventional civilian sense, but there might be other issues—hearing loss, for example—associated with having been in the Armed Forces which become clear only later. It seems very strange, as the noble and learned Lord has pointed out, that people should have different rights according to whether the problems arose while based in the UK or on overseas operations. Can the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart, who appears to have taken over from the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, say what work the Government have done in looking at the potential ramifications of this limitation?

This Bill has been put forward by the Government as something supposed to help our service men and women, but this limitation seems to limit their rights. I know the Minister will have been told that it is very important that cases are brought swiftly and issues are dealt with promptly, that it is in everybody’s interest to do so and that delaying things is in no one’s. But neither is curtailing people’s rights.

The Royal British Legion sent a briefing picking up in particular on the Armed Forces covenant, quoting the point:

“Those who serve in the Armed Forces, whether Regular or Reserve, those who have served in the past and their families, should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services … In accessing services, former members of the Armed Forces should expect the same level of support as any other citizen in society.”

Assuming that Her Majesty’s Government still support the Armed Forces covenant, can the Minister explain how the proposals in Part 2 of the Bill live up to its commitments? Can he tell us what additional thoughts the Government might be willing to have on looking again at this limitation?

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On the subject of time limits and particularly in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, the courts are of course sensitive to pleas of state of knowledge. Again, I respectfully echo the submission of my noble friend Lord Faulks on that matter. So, while thanking all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate, I recommend that these amendments are not taken forward.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton Portrait Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Lab) [V]
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I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, my noble friend Lord West of Spithead, the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Craig of Radley, Lord Stirrup and Lord Boyce, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, all of whom supported this amendment. I am also struck by the fact that I am supported much more by the military than I am by the lawyers on this amendment, which suggests that it must be right.

I also thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart of Dirleton, for his detailed reply. In relation to carving out the military claims against the Ministry of Defence, as proposed in Amendment 29, I understood his answer to be that it is discriminatory. I find that hard to believe because the effect of the Bill is to treat soldiers on overseas operations as different from other soldiers. Therefore, it is simply a question of judgment as to which sub-category is acceptable and which is not. He then said that the other reason for resisting it was because it would not affect very many people. That is not much of an answer—do the right thing; do not deprive people of a claim that they would otherwise have.

Ultimately—and this is no criticism of the Minister—his answers were unconvincing because the purpose of this part of the Bill is not to stop military personnel bringing claims; it is to stop claims, of the sort identified by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, brought by non-military personnel. Whether one thinks that that is right or wrong, it is clear that the Government did not intend this effect on military personnel. They should be consistent in the way they deal with it and reassure military personnel by getting rid of this distinction.

Amendment 19 and the ones associated with it would provide that if the same thing were to happen on Salisbury Plain, soldiers should have a claim, whether it was brought in relation to overseas operations or not. There is absolutely no reason that that should not be given effect to. The alleged suggestion that it might be difficult to work out, with no examples given, was—with respect—rather unconvincing. Of course I will withdraw my amendment, but I think I will return to this on Report.

Amendment 19 withdrawn.
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Moved by
20: Clause 11, page 7, leave out lines 7 to 28
Lord Falconer of Thoroton Portrait Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Lab) [V]
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This amendment deals with the factors that the court must have regard to when it considers whether or not to extend a limitation period under the Human Rights Act. The new Clause 7A(2) that the Bill would insert into the Human Rights Act states:

“The court or tribunal must have particular regard to ... the effect of the delay in bringing proceedings on the cogency of evidence adduced or likely to be adduced by the parties”.

More detail is then given before it says that the court or tribunal must also have regard to

“the likely impact of the proceedings on the mental health of any witness or potential witness who is ... a member of Her Majesty’s forces.”

Those factors would, no doubt, be considered in the ordinary course of the exercise of the discretion, irrespective of whether they were put into the Bill.

The wording in the Bill is “particular regard to”. Is it intended that these particular factors should be the main ones that the court has regard to, or is it intended to change the law in any way, in relation to the exercise of the discretion? I do not dispute that the factors that are set out would be relevant, but I think the drafting is unfortunate, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s explanation of how he thinks it is intended that the exercise of the discretion will work.

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Lord Falconer of Thoroton Portrait Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for taking part in the debate. May I specifically exclude the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, from the lawyers to whom I do not pay regard. The House pays great regard to what the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, has to say on every topic. I express my gratitude to the Minister for answering, as ever, with great care and regard to the questions that were asked.

What was in my mind in advancing this amendment was having some indication as to the extent to which the Government intend to change the approach that would otherwise be applied by the court. In particular, would these factors referred to in proposed new subsection (2) be intended, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, said, to trump other factors? I will very carefully study what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart, said, but I do not think that he quite answered that. It may be that the way forward in relation to this is to have a further discussion with the noble and learned Lord to see whether he can give further assurance, either in correspondence placed in the Library of the House, or maybe on Report, if we cannot reach agreement on this. I am grateful to him for the answer that he gave. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 20 withdrawn.