Just last week I was speaking to Brian Wood. In 2004 he was serving with the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment in Iraq and was a commander during the ferocious battle of Danny Boy which saw him awarded the Military Cross. But despite his gallantry, in the decade that followed, Brian’s life and that of his family was blighted by a series of appalling allegations behind claims for compensation. The subsequent Al-Sweady Inquiry offered vindication, dismissing many claims as the product of deliberate lies and highlighting the misconduct of the notorious lawyer Phil Shiner. But, for Brian, the scars still linger.
Sadly, we can’t rewrite history but we can put things right for future personnel. Building on our programme of work to recognise the veterans community, though the Officer of Veterans Affairs which I lead, we now have a chance to further offer the protections they deserve.
So, on Wednesday, we will have the Second Reading of our Overseas Operations Bill. It is designed to help stop the endless cycle of investigations over historic allegations. It provides our Armed Forces with certainty by creating a better legal framework for dealing with allegations of misconduct during any future overseas conflicts. And it recognises the unique burden and pressures placed on our serving men and women during overseas operations.
These are limited measures entirely in keeping with the UK’s leading role in the promotion and protection of human rights. The unreserved condemnation on the use of torture is front and centre of everything we do. We remain committed to our obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, including the UN Convention Against Torture. Nothing in the Bill alters this.
Contrary to some stories, the Bill still allows for allegations of wrongdoing more than five years old - including war crimes and torture - to be investigated and, where appropriate, prosecuted. A decision on whether to prosecute for such crimes will continue to be for the independent prosecutor to make.
The UK will never put the Armed Forces above the law. On the contrary, we hold our people to the highest standards. Whenever the Armed Forces embark on operations outside the UK, our people and their chain of command are bound to abide by the criminal law of England and Wales, as well as international humanitarian law as set out in the Geneva Conventions. The overwhelming majority meet those expectations and serve with great distinction. As for the tiny minority who fall short, they should expect the full force of the law. The uniform is no hiding place. Again this Bill won’t change that. Finally, the Bill will not prevent our troops bringing civil claims against the MOD. Our analysis suggests 94 per cent of claims from service personnel and veterans are already brought within six years. Critically, for conditions like PTSD, this limit will start from the date of knowledge or diagnosis.
But let’s not be distracted by what the Bill won’t do. Its purpose is to break the vicious cycle of claims and repeated investigations driven by pernicious practitioners. When I stand up at the despatch box on Wednesday, I’ll be thinking about all those brave service personnel who did their duty defending our nation but found themselves subject to the stresses and strains of late and repeated allegations and claims.
We know that Labour have asked to pause this bill – and we have to ask ourselves, why? Signing up to defend your country should not expose you to years of spurious allegations that cast a cloud over your proud service. This Government is proud to be acting to stop that.
Quite rightly there are those who ask about Northern Ireland. This Government remains committed to finding a way to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. The Government will introduce separate legislation to address the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland in a way that focuses on reconciliation, delivers for victims, and ends the cycle of reinvestigations into the Troubles in NI that has failed victims and veterans alike.
I got into politics to end this injustice and to land a decisive blow against the scourge of lawfare - which is increasingly becoming the way of modern conflict. As I’ll be saying to my colleagues in the House, we have the chance to change things for the better. This Bill, alongside our work to enhance and expedite investigations, is just one part of the Government’s wider fightback against lawfare. But it is critical. Veterans, like Brian, will be watching. We must not let them down.