I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. As many hon. and right hon. Members have observed this afternoon, the Taliban need to be judged on their actions, not on their words.
Against this new reality, it is beyond credibility that the Foreign Secretary has publicly claimed that the UK will hold the Taliban to account. What does that mean? By what means and to what end would this be done? It would suit the Foreign Secretary better to fully restore the foreign aid budget, rather than issuing abstract and random threats to a regime that has just shown the UK the door. Five thousand refugees this year is not commensurate with the scenes in Kabul of people literally running for their lives and clinging to aircraft, and a hazy figure of 20,000, over what period we are not certain, is insubstantial to say the least, given the circumstances.
In closing, I urge the Government and the Prime Minister to review and expedite this element of the UK’s response, including through a cogent plan to extricate brave Afghans who are not already in Kabul. The UK was front and centre at the genesis of this political catastrophe. It should be similarly positioned for the clear-up.
I pay tribute to all those who lost their lives serving their country, and to those who have served, especially colleagues on both sides of the House.
I was struck by the words of my first cousin Mark, who served in Afghanistan 18 years ago. Like many of us, he found the scenes unfolding in Afghanistan difficult. His post on social media resonates with many veterans:
“Those poor souls, so fearful of what lay ahead for them that they would rather cling to a jet and fall to their deaths than face the future in their homeland. It’s hard to even comprehend their desperation and fear. 18 years ago I was there: believing in what we were part of; believing that we would make a difference; believing that their futures would be brighter and lives more secure for their loved ones; believing that if I had to make the ultimate sacrifice it would have been worth it; believing it would be alright in the end; believing that Afghan nationals would not succumb to corruption and would realise that they needed to come together and stand strong for what they believed in.”
My cousin has never felt as totally confused as he does now, which concerns me. Some of his colleagues made the ultimate sacrifice, and more so their surviving families back home. His Afghan medals mean nothing to him any more. He does not feel proud; he feels totally repulsed. He cannot think of a worse Government than the present one. He feels they have failed miserably, not just on the covid-19 pandemic but on how they have let the situation get to where it is. His words:
“My medal is now a memento of a failed mission.”
I would like to say that I am very proud of my cousin for his service, and so are his sisters, his wife, his daughters and his cousins like me.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) paid tribute to the veterans who served by saying that it is the politicians and the foreign policy that have let them down. I have to agree. For my cousin Mark, and for all those who served, we now need to know how the Government and the Prime Minister will address the despair and hopelessness felt by so many veterans. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), the leader of the Labour party, said today, recent events in Afghanistan shame the west.
The first point to make about the armed forces is that there will be no redundancies under this plan. There will be massive investment in our land forces and particularly in cyber-forces. We are taking the tough decisions needed to modernise and improve our armed forces. Yes, it is expensive—it requires £24 billion to do it—but it means taking historic and difficult decisions now, and that is what we are doing.
Yes, and one of the things that our defence investments can do is help to entrench our Union and build jobs and growth across the whole of the United Kingdom. There is now a steady stream of shipbuilding contracts and many other defence contracts that will drive high-quality jobs for a generation to come.
I certainly am proud of what universal credit is doing. It is odd to be attacked by a Labour Member over universal credit when it is his party’s policy to abolish that benefit, but the best thing we can do for families in Billingham is to ensure that there are very good jobs there.
It was wonderful to see what is happening in Teesside under the leadership of Mayor Ben Houchen—the investment that is going in by Fujifilm and others, which will create long-term jobs. It is the belief of those on the Government side of the House that that is the route out of poverty—fantastic education and top-quality jobs—and that is what this Government aim to deliver.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right in what he says about home building and the need for housing across the country. We sometimes hear that this is a problem mainly in London and the south-east. It is not at all; it is everywhere in the country, as he rightly says. I thank Tim Bowles, the Mayor of the West of England, for everything that he has done as he stands down. We intend to help build on his legacy with a massive home building programme and home ownership programme across the country.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The person who was recruited in this case was clearly unsuitable for the forces. He did not take advantage of the fantastic opportunities that there are in the forces. He clearly had some sort of problem, and he needed to live in that regime where he was told what to do day in, day out. Once that left his life, his life went completely off the track. He said that he missed not just being told what to do but the camaraderie of his unit. Once that was gone, he felt friendless and alone.
However, the problem we have is that there is a dearth of academic research, and that is why we need a report. We do not know the unique factors that have an impact when it comes to military investigations, including the psychological wellbeing and the mental health of service personnel. I know that the Minister is a champion of this in the Government, and I am glad of that fact—I know that he will work on this issue for as long as he is a Minister—but that is the problem we have, and it is why we need a report. There are large numbers of factors that help personnel deal with the complexity of disciplinary and criminal proceedings and the potential of those two processes, but we do not know their effects.
Returning to the example from many years ago that I mentioned, there is also the point about camaraderie. When someone is under investigation, whether disciplinary or criminal, that has an effect on the morale of their unit, which in turn has a wider effect on their mental health. At the end of the day, many people who find themselves under investigation will say one thing: “I was simply following orders. Why am I the one being investigated?” Also, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham alludes to, there are far more laws, regulations and rules in a military investigation. Some military laws have different objectives from criminal and civil laws: in contrast to the criminal law, military discipline has educational objectives, positive as well as negative.
I am not an expert on military law, but I would say that it is confusing. Take the example of a military guard guarding a checkpoint in Helmand 15 years ago, protecting the security of a region’s population. An approaching vehicle opens fire on them—imagine it is you, Mr Stringer. In this role, you as the guard are the victim: you have been fired on. However, you return fire, and you kill the alleged insurgents in the vehicle. That could mean you are investigated simply for following orders and returning fire. That is the crux of the problem: on one hand, somebody is the victim of a crime; on the other hand, they are the perpetrator of a crime, simply because they have followed orders. That is the type of thing I hope we can clear up in future.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention: he is always thoughtful, and his intervention was helpful. I should apologise, because I should have put “allegedly” in front of that example. I hope Members will accept that apology. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that was a very helpful intervention—I would not expect anything different from him.
However, what I would also highlight about these investigations—again, this is because of the lack of academic research—is the vulnerability of so many of these people, and I want to say something about learning disabilities.
The decision not to present the rationale, what advice was taken and how the Government arrived at their decision have eroded trust in politics and have been a problem for as long as I have been in the House. We have an opportunity with the Bill to start to rebuild trust in the decisions that the Government make. I hope that that Government will take that on board.
The Attorney General should be required to publish a report on the findings to reassure Parliament and the public that a decision has not been a political one. Many of the issues we have had in the past few years—the north-south divide and Brexit and remain—would have been avoided if the advice had been published and made transparent and fair. When we are making decisions, especially about our service personnel—some of the bravest people in this country—we must ensure that the public interest is at the heart of decision making. Dominic Grieve believes that the fact that the courts can review a decision by the Attorney General may create more litigation rather than reduce it and simplify the process. There is already a backlog of court cases, and we do not want to add to it.
The hon. Gentleman has a lot of experience in this area. If I was Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, he would just have talked himself into a debate on the Floor of the House. If he will forgive me, I shall stick to the amendment, because as I said earlier, we should have at least a 90-minute debate in Westminster Hall on that point.
The concerns expressed by Dominic Grieve have been echoed by His Honour Judge Jeffrey Blackett, who stated that
“the decision of the Attorney General to prosecute or not prosecute certain cases is likely to lead to judicial reviews and, as Mr Grieve stated, more litigation.”
In the Bill’s evidence sessions we heard from the most recent Advocate General of the Armed Forces. He expressed deep concern that this decision should be taken away from the Director of Public Prosecutions:
“My concern about the Attorney General’s consent is that it undermines the Director Service Prosecutions. If I were he, I would be most upset that I could not make a decision in these circumstances.” ––[Official Report, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Public Bill Committee, 8 October 2020; c. 125, Q267.]
It is quite clear that by taking this responsibility away from the Director Service Prosecutions the Government intend to assert a certain level of political control over these decisions. I hope that when the Minister responds he will give us a full explanation.
This is a risky decision from the Government. If they do not comply with the Geneva convention in making such decisions, that could add to the reputation, which they appear to be determined to establish around the world, that the UK no longer respects international law.
In such situations, we know that the person who will benefit is not the veteran. That is the problem with part 2 of the Bill and the six-year limit. There must be protections in place to ensure that veterans who have served and suffered personal injury can seek justice for those injuries.
There are other examples, such as the nuclear test veterans. It was good to hear about the work done by the right hon. Member for North Durham on that. I have had interactions with those veterans, including a constituent of my own who, sadly, died. Many have waited decades and decades for compensation and have had nothing—not even any medals to recognise the service they undertook. There are still ongoing issues, and again the MOD has denied that the cancers that those veterans have suffered are related to their service, despite a number of them having similar cancers and there being no links other than the Christmas Island testing.
I could also mention Lariam, an anti-malarial drug that can cause real issues for individuals’ mental health, but not always instantly—it can happen on a much later date. My own husband was given Lariam and suffered as a result. Thankfully, he has not had any long-term issues, but many individuals’ mental health is affected many, many years beyond that.
I thank the hon. Member for his kind comments. There is already a limit, but that limit can be looked at and overridden in certain circumstances. That should remain in place; there is no reason to take that away. We are not saying, “We encourage all veterans to wait 30 or 40 years”, but there must be some protections. There cannot be a hard stop that prevents them from taking any action.
We all understand the Bill’s purpose and why it has been brought forward, even though we might not agree with all of it and we might have issues with some of it, but part 2 of the Bill makes no sense whatever. The Bill has been sold to veterans as protecting them and looking after them, with the Government having their back. Actually, part 2 does the opposite. Why do the Government want to prevent between 19 and 50 veterans from seeking justice? I would like to know that from the Minister, because we have not yet had a decent answer on that point.
I will come back to the right hon. Gentleman in a minute. He talks about taking rights away from our service personnel. They have a right to be protected on the battlefield in all these areas. One area where they have a right to be protected is the use of lawfare to progress, and change the outcome of, a conflict through other means.
There were lots of wild sentiments thrown around—“lawyers don’t make things up,” and all the rest of it. Again, that does not collide with reality. Phil Shiner has been struck off. The reality—the world as we find it—is what this Bill is designed to deal with.
I thank my hon. Friend for introducing this amendment, which I assume is a probing one in order to have the debate. But, Mr Stringer, it was remiss of me not to say what a pleasure it is serve under your chairmanship, especially now we are both serial rebels on our Benches, after votes that took place this week on covid.
I do not like the word “drone”. It gives the sinister idea that somehow these things are indiscriminate weapons and there is no human in the chain. Unmanned aerial vehicle is a more appropriate term. I accept that, in the future, we may get to a system where unmanned aerial vehicles or subsea systems are completely autonomous, but at the moment, we are talking about the human in the chain.
It is a common myth, mainly argued by those who are against the use of UAVs, that somehow there are no rules that govern how they are used. Nothing could be further from the truth. When I was a Minister in the Ministry of Defence, I met the individuals who pilot—that is the word we use—these unmanned systems in both Iraq and Afghanistan. They are in the same decision-making process and legal framework as if someone was dropping a ordnance from a Typhoon or any type of manned aircraft.
There is a chain of command, including a legal framework around their decisions. Before each individual airstrike takes place, there is a legal justification. That might come as a surprise to some people who want to portray the view that people are sat in Nevada or Waddington or Florida pressing buttons, attacking targets. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a legal framework for each operation and that is supported by the legal service. It surprises some people that each strike has a legal sign-off, with lawyers who agree what can and cannot be done, including, as I know from my time in office, a chain that sometimes includes Ministers who have to agree to those sign-offs. There are many examples where Ministers have had sign-off.
Is what we are talking about pretty? No, it is not—but anyone who knows the battle space or any type of combat knows that it is not a pretty thing. Killing people is not something that anyone wants to do, but unmanned aerial vehicles have given a capability to us and our allies which has been of tremendous help, not only in saving UK and allies’ servicemen and women’s lives, but in saving civilian lives.
The chain of command is a legal framework. Do things go wrong? Yes, clearly they do, and not just in this theatre. Sometimes in a very complex battle scenario, no matter how well you plan for it, you cannot foresee every eventuality. What irritates me is that people sometimes look back at those situations with some sort of crystal ball and say, “Well, if I was there, I would have done X, Y and Z.”
I will come to that in a minute; it is an important point on the legal protection that is there for the people involved.
Things do go wrong. It is fine for people to look back and say, “Look, if that happened, I would have done this differently,” but that is just not how warfare takes place. Sometimes, there are critical decisions that have to be taken at short notice to protect civilians or protect our armed forces’ lives. At the end of the day, they are down to individual judgments, not only by the commanders who authorise things, but by the people we are asking to protect us as members of our armed forces.
We continue to fund numerous programmes to increase girls’ and young women’s take-up of science, technology, engineering and maths subjects. The number of girls’ STEM A-level entries has increased year on year, despite an overall reduction in cohort size. Since 2010, there has been a 31% increase in girls’ entries to STEM A-levels in England and a 34% increase in women accepted on to full-time STEM undergraduate courses in the UK.
Our advanced maths support programme, worth £8 million per year, aims to increase the number of girls studying level 3 maths, which includes core maths. Out of more than 17,000 students participating in the programme’s events last year, 55% of attendees were female. We will be using research such as our behavioural insight studies to inform future work on how to get more girls studying maths after GCSE.
Along with the significant measures that I have mentioned on increasing the take-up of STEM subjects among girls and women, we are also raising awareness of STEM careers through programmes such as STEM ambassadors, 45% of whom are women. The Department for Education is also taking steps to engage with the sector through apprenticeships. On aerospace specifically, we are supporting industry’s efforts to increase diversity in the sector through the women in aviation and aerospace charter, recognising that a more diverse sector is good for business, customers and workplace culture.
In addition to the £160 billion of support that the Government have given to people and firms across the country, we have supported areas and cities in lockdown with considerable grants. There was £20 million to Leicester, business rates relief of £44 million and £68 million in spending on business grants. The best thing possible is for areas all to work hard, as Blackburn with Darwen have done, for instance, to get the virus down and to make sure they are able to open up again.
I set out earlier what we are doing in this particular area. There is a legitimate export market for plastic waste and secondary raw material, but we take firm action against those engaged in the illegal export of contaminated, low-quality and unrecyclable plastic waste.
I most certainly do join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the Kurdistan Regional Government and other Governments in the area, including those of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, who are helping. I am not aware of any delays to the allocation to which my hon. Friend refers, but I am happy to look into the matter.