James Sunderland welcomes the Overseas Operations Bill as groundbreaking legislation which honours the manifesto pledge to introduce greater certainty and protection against historic spurious allegations for our service personnel and veterans.
It is a great privilege to be called so early in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I might be new to this place, but I spent three decades in uniform. I have worked with many veterans charities across the UK, not least in my previous role as commander of the Army engagement group at Sandhurst and in my Bracknell constituency where our armed forces champions are working wonders.
The Bill needs to be considered for what it is, not for what it is not. Given that it is groundbreaking, it needs to start somewhere and is therefore bound to attract negative interest. For those who have not noticed, the architect of the Bill is a veteran. I cannot think of a single Minister who has invested so much of himself against such a tough backdrop and I commend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), for everything he has done this far. He has fulfilled his promise, to date, to our veterans and it is incumbent on us in this place to be objective, because we will not be forgiven if we fail. I do not believe that anybody can be a supporter of our armed forces and vote against the Bill.
I will not have that. The armed forces look to this place to get this right—the hon. Gentleman is correct on that—but they expect and deserve a better standard than the comment he has just made. I know he is new, but I like him and I just ask him to withdraw it. Please withdraw it.
I am a great fan of the Bill and the Bill is right. We need to put it through.
At its simplest level, the imposition of a presumption in law against prosecution after five years will provide greater certainty for our service personnel. Since 2002, the MOD has faced 1,400 judicial review claims and over 2,000 civil claims relating to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan alone. Many are valid, but about 3,400 allegations of unlawful killings have also been received by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, of which at least 70% have been filtered out as being spurious. Members will also be aware of the al-Sweady inquiry, which cost the taxpayer £31 million and was proven to be based on
“deliberate lies, reckless speculation and ingrained hostility”.
That was just the tip of the iceberg, and it is right that public interest lawyers, such as Phil Shiner, should have been struck off. But that is nothing compared to the anguish of our veterans, many of whom are innocent.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the measures in the Bill will reduce the uncertainty and anguish of both current armed forces personnel and veterans?
I agree very much. The bottom line is that veterans I have spoken to over the years are worried about the next knock at the door. I believe that the Bill will give certainty to the current generation and to who those come afterwards.
To tackle the conjecture, if I may, the Bill does not absolve any member of Her Majesty’s forces from the obligation to operate within the law. It does not impact on criminal investigations and it does not create, or come close to creating, any de facto immunity for service personnel, as the few bad apples will always be brought to justice. As for the downright fabrication, the Bill does not place our troops on a collision course with the Geneva convention or The Hague, and it does not break international law.
It does! Read the Bill.
I have read the Bill.
In fact, I cannot think of a more robust institution than the MOD for upholding the law, and the UK has a proud record of overseas military service which is to be applauded, not undermined.
As for part 2, I comfortable that the six-year long stop of civil claims for personal injury and death is about right given that 94% of all claims since 2007 have been settled within five years. However, we have Committee stage to unpick that further if we need to. I also understand that the long stop applies to the point at which legacy issues, such as hearing loss, PTSD and physical illness first come to light, therefore providing a safety net.
Most important for me, the Bill requires that, when making legal judgments, the courts must consider the unique circumstances of overseas operations and any adverse effect on our personnel. Those who have served will know that warfighting is dangerous and terrifying, with confusion all around, friends falling beside you, sweat dripping into your eyes, the ground exploding, people moving in every direction, images of family flashing before your eyes and abject terror everywhere. What would you do? Fortunately, the training is good, the loyalty and camaraderie in HM forces are unparalleled and our soldiers do operate within the law of armed conflict. I salute all those who got closer to danger than I did.
Despite what others would have us think, the Bill does not provide blanket immunity for soldiers to commit war crimes. Indeed, the suggestion in some of what I have read that the best trained and best led armed forces in the world are somehow predisposed to inflicting torture or sex crimes on operations is ridiculous. It is deeply offensive to those who serve, and the people who peddle this nonsense just need to stop. [An Hon. Member: “Nobody has said it.”] I have seen it.
To those who seek to judge our veterans after many years of service from the sanctity of their courtroom or the comfort of their armchair, I say, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, whatever notion you have of idealism, it may be that you just don’t get it.” That is why the Government need to provide the protection in law.
To conclude, I pass on three messages on behalf of many of our 2.2 million veterans who have contacted me to offer support. First, to the esteemed figures who have chosen to unpick the Bill by writing divisive articles for the national media, I regret, you do not speak for me. Secondly, I say to those dishonourable lawyers who have pursued the victims of a witch hunt into their later years, “You need to be struck off.” To my esteemed colleagues on the Opposition Benches, I say, “Please pay heed today, to stay on the right side of this. Unlike the thousands of soldiers I was proud to serve with, your constituents might not be quite so forgiving.” Let us do the right thing for those who have endured so much for so long and put the Bill through.