All Jack Lopresti contributions to the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021

Tue 3rd November 2020
Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill
Commons Chamber

3rd reading: House of Commons
Report stage
Report stage: House of Commons
Report stage
Cabinet Office
11 interactions (850 words)
Wed 23rd September 2020
3 interactions (561 words)

Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill

(3rd reading: House of Commons)
Jack Lopresti Excerpts
Tuesday 3rd November 2020

(11 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Cabinet Office
Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Jones
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Sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I was being polite in replying to the hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Miss Dines).

The families took the case against the MOD on the basis that they did not know about the Snatch Land Rovers until the Chilcot inquiry reported. That was way past any time limit.

Jack Lopresti Portrait Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con)
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Surely the right hon. Gentleman realises that the proposed six-year time limit applies from the point of knowledge or the point of diagnosis, so it is not clear what point he is trying to get across.

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Jones
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He who waits it all comes to. I was going to answer that point in a minute.

The MOD argued two things in that case. First, it argued that the case was out of time, and the families won the limitation hearing to take the case forward. The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) has just said it would be within the six-year limit. No, it would not. Let us suppose they had taken the case not in 2016 but six years later. They would not be able to take a limitation hearing at all. The Minister does not quite understand that problem.

The case I raised in Committee was of an aircraft engineer who developed a very serious nerve condition from paint. The only reason he was able to take forward his case was because the technology had changed and research had shown that the paint actually damages people’s nervous system.

The Minister said in Committee that, somehow, he is on record in The Sun as guaranteeing that no one will lose out, but he cannot because that will not happen: as I said to him in Committee, using the Robin Day analogy, we are all here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians. Frankly, what will happen is that MOD lawyers will use this to stop people making claims.

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Dan Jarvis Portrait Dan Jarvis
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3 Nov 2020, 12:02 a.m.

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly valuable point. That is a real risk and an unintended consequence of the Bill. I hope that the Minister gives pressing thought to that during the remainder of its passage through the House.

My hon. Friend will have seen the excellent report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which raised significant concerns that the Bill breaches the UK’s international legal obligations under international humanitarian law, human rights law and international criminal law. The Committee recommended that at a minimum, the Government should exclude torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide from the Bill’s presumption against prosecution. That is precisely what the Government should be doing.

When I spoke to the Minister before Second Reading, he said that he was amenable to looking at such changes. I am sure he believes, as I and many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House believe, that torture is incompatible with the values and standards of our armed forces.

Jack Lopresti Portrait Jack Lopresti
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There is nothing in the Bill that prohibits any investigation within or after the five years for any such acts. There is nothing that favours them; there is no amnesty, no pardon, and no statute of limitations. By the way, I enjoyed the hon. Gentleman’s book, which I read a couple of weeks ago, but I have to say that on this occasion, he is mistaken.

Dan Jarvis Portrait Dan Jarvis
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for the comments towards the end of his remarks. There is a weight of expert opinion. I am reassured about the strength of the case that I and other hon. Members are seeking to make today by the contacts I have had with my former colleagues who are still serving in our armed forces. There is a genuine debate still to be had about this. I am sure that the Minister will want to engage with the substance of the debate. Let us keep talking about it.

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Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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We will have to introduce a five-minute limit now, because of the pressure of speakers.

Jack Lopresti Portrait Jack Lopresti
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3 Nov 2020, 4:07 p.m.

I will address briefly some of the points raised in this excellent debate. First, I would like to congratulate the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), for his efforts to bring the Bill before the House. He has been a tireless champion of the veterans community ever since he was elected and it has been a privilege to serve on the Public Bill Committee with him. And I am so pleased he has had his haircut, finally.

This is a Conservative Government who are delivering on our manifesto commitment to begin to ensure that the men and women this House sends on operations, often into harm’s way, are safe from the sort of vexatious, repeat investigations and harassment that some have had to endure after operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. In this country, we are rightly proud of the men and women of our armed forces. In this season of remembrance, it is right for the House to be considering legal safeguards for them on future operations overseas. The Bill begins to address what many have talked about over many years and which we are finally getting to grips with: it provides some reassurance and protection for those deployed in the service of our nation on operations abroad in the future.

With the greatest respect to Members across the House, there has been a great deal of nonsense spoken about this proposed legislation during the passage of the Bill so far. The statutory presumption against prosecution after five years of any incident does not constitute a pardon, an amnesty or a statute of limitations. Prosecutors will still have discretion over whether to act, bearing in mind the public interest and if there is adequate or new evidence, and, critically, after careful consideration from the Attorney General, who will act in the public interest.

Our service personnel are trained to the highest possible standard and are taught about the laws of armed conflict, as well as the Geneva convention, as some Members mentioned. The Armed Forces Act 2006 clearly states that any criminal act will be considered as an offence under UK law. This proposed legislation does not overturn that principle or statute. This Bill does not make it virtually impossible to bring prosecutions for charges of torture—this is not correct—and I welcome the fact that the threshold for a new prosecution will have to be of an exceptional nature after five years. This legislation will dramatically change the existing culture, where our armed forces personnel are seen as fair game by some lawyers. It is right that any investigation must consider the unique pressures of conflict and decisions made under great stress. This provision will, I am sure, be welcomed by serving personnel and veterans.

This Bill does not prevent personnel from bringing civil claims against the MOD. The six-year time limit proposed applies from the point of knowledge or the point of diagnosis. The MOD estimates that 93.8% of claims by service personnel or their families arising from service in Afghanistan or Iraq would be eligible under the provisions of this Bill. I also welcome the establishment by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence of the judge-led review of the wider service justice system. This will I hope ensure that from the beginning when allegations are made or incidents occur, they will be dealt with more swiftly.

The message from this House must be clear to our allies around the world: this Bill does not exclude British personnel on operations from their obligations under international law or the Geneva convention. The wider interpretation of the European convention on human rights has produced additional confusion. In an area where we have unattributed forces acting in grey zone operations, or not wearing uniforms or insignia, the opportunity to provoke incidents and then claim the use of excessive force will be a more attractive option from these states or others who wish us ill. Crucially, other NATO allies, such as France, obtain a derogation from the ECHR when their forces are deployed overseas on operations. This Bill will put in statute the proviso for Ministers to consider that they would derogate from the ECHR.

In welcoming this Bill, I look forward to supporting the Government’s measures to extend similar protections to our Northern Ireland veterans, which is long overdue. This Government are proud to stand up for our armed forces while they protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Emma Lewell-Buck Portrait Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab)
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3 Nov 2020, 12:01 a.m.

I will speak to the amendments and new clauses tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench, those in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and those that I have signed tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and others.

I do not want to stray too far from the amendments to hand, but I would like to say that I have sat in on many Bills in this place and I have yet to see one leave Committee completely unamended. Most Ministers accept that Bills as introduced are never perfect. They engage and listen to evidence sessions and Members in Committee, and try to make changes accordingly. It is astonishing that the Bill before us today is identical to the Bill we were presented with on Second Reading—astonishing because not a single witness in oral evidence or in written evidence has expressed full support for the presumption against prosecution in part 1 of the Bill or the civil litigation longstop in part 2 of the Bill.

In fact, there have been strong calls to scrap part 2 of the Bill in its entirety. If the civil litigation longstop part of the Bill remains unamended, there is a high risk that the Ministry of Defence will not be held accountable for violations of soldiers’ and civilians’ rights. The largest proportion of claims made against the MOD are claims of negligence and of breaches of the MOD’s duty of care towards its soldiers. Between 2014 and 2019, the available data shows that such claims amounted to more than 75% of all claims. This legislation will benefit only the Ministry of Defence, yet the Ministry of Defence is the defendant in all those claims. There is a clear conflict. The Minister and the Department have created legislation that protects them from legitimate legal claims. I am unaware of any other instance of our legislation being drafted in such a way to give such inbuilt protection to the defendant over the claimant, especially when there is already legislation in place under the Limitation Act to strike out any baseless claims.

This Bill allows the MOD to strike out not just baseless claims, but any claims, including rightful ones. Those suffering from hearing loss or post-traumatic stress disorder will not always be able to bring claims within the six-year timeframe, for the reasons many in our Committee’s evidence session gave.

There remains a lack of clarity about the number of people who would be disadvantaged by the longstop, but the Government’s impact assessment shows that at a minimum, 19 injured or bereaved members of the forces community who made claims from operations in Afghanistan and Iraq would have been blocked had the legislation we are debating today been in place. One member of our brave forces being blocked from a claim is completely out of order, never mind 19. Crucially, we do not know what will happen in the future, but it is likely that there will be drastic unintended consequences and our forces will have less protection than civilians and, in some cases—as has been said—prisoners. There is simply no justification for introducing a time limit where one currently does not exist.

Overseas Operations (Service Personnel And Veterans) Bill

(2nd reading)
Jack Lopresti Excerpts
Wednesday 23rd September 2020

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber

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Ministry of Defence
Carla Lockhart Portrait Carla Lockhart
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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.

Jack Lopresti Portrait Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con)
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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, I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans on all the incredible 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 unintentionally to give the impression 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 into 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?

Caroline Johnson Portrait Dr Caroline Johnson (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)
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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 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 our veterans no longer need to worry that their brave and honourable service for this country will be tarnished by repeated intimidation by investigation.