Politics

Government Told To 'Get A Grip' Over Proposed Overseas Operations Bill

The bill is aimed at preventing vexatious claims against armed service personnel.

The shadow defence secretary John Healey has urged the Government to "get a grip" over its proposals for a bill aimed at stopping vexatious claims against military personnel. 

The Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which was announced in March, is designed to introduce a time limit on prosecution for alleged human rights offences committed by British forces overseas, unless there is compelling new evidence.

Speaking in the House of Commons, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans denied that forces veterans will be restricted in their ability to sue the Ministry of Defence (MOD) for wrongdoing under the new bill.

"None of these measures will prevent the MOD from being held to account for any wrongdoing," Johnny Mercer said.

"The bill takes account of uniquely challenging circumstances of overseas operations. It reassures our personnel they will not be called on endlessly to defend against historic claims."

Mr Mercer, responding to an urgent question by shadow defence secretary John Healey, added: "One thing that is beyond debate is that this is enhancing the quality of life and this nation’s responsibility to its service people and its veterans.

"It is not going in the other direction and if there is any genuine concern out there from any individual who can show me that this will inhibit their rights I’m more than happy to look at it."

Johnny Mercer: The day of veterans living in 'persistent state of worry' coming to an end.

Mr Healey said while Labour supports the Government’s efforts to stop "the relentless cycle of vexatious legal claims or repeat investigations" against veterans, it has got "important parts of this bill badly wrong".

"I asked the minister on 6 July why he is legislating to reduce the rights of our Armed Forces personnel who serve overseas to bring civil claims against the Ministry of Defence if they miss the hard six-year deadline or his long-stop," he said.

"He told the House 'the bill does not do that'. But of course, it does, in clause 11, and one week later his written answer to me confirmed that 70 of 522 of such settled claims have been brought more than six years after the incident."

He added: "Why is he legislating to deny those who put their lives on the line for our country overseas the same employer liability rights as the UK civilians they defend?"

Mr Mercer responded by saying: "I would ask him to consider for a moment, given the history I have in this place, if I would attempt in any way to restrict the rights of service personnel to sue the Ministry of Defence or to claim for compensation after the event?

"This issue around limitations, I’m afraid, is misunderstood because it is not from the point when the injury happened or the incident that caused the injury, it’s actually from the point of awareness or of diagnosis," he added.

"It does not change that."

Mr Mercer described the experiences faced by some veterans and their families as "totally unacceptable".

"The objective of this bill is very clear and it is to restore fairness in the system for both veterans, service personnel and victims, for whom this process has not worked for many, many years," he told the Commons.

Conservative James Sunderland asked for reassurance that soldiers will "never again be pursued by ambulance-chasing lawyers".

The Bracknell MP told the Commons: "The rules of engagement for overseas land operations are covered by what’s known as 'Card Alpha'.

"Could [Mr Mercer] please reassure the House that soldiers who pull the trigger in accordance with Card Alpha or its tri-service equivalent can get on with their lives safe in the knowledge that they will never again be pursued by ambulance-chasing lawyers?"

Johnny Mercer responded. saying: "For me, service in the military is very, very clear – you adhere to the law.

"You break the law, you will be prosecuted and charged; you do nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about.

"You operate within the law of armed conflict, and those who are elected in this place to look after you will from this point on do their job and protect you."

Mr Mercer then apologised on behalf of the MOD for the "unacceptable" experiences some troops and veterans have faced.