Schedule 1 - Excluded offences for the purposes of section 6

Part of Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:00 pm on 27th April 2021.

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Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham 4:00 pm, 27th April 2021

The distinct purpose of the Bill is to provide legal protection to military personnel serving overseas on operations—that is what it is about. It is all about stopping vexatious prosecutions, often generated, for large sums, by unscrupulous lawyers. In short, lawfare, such as we saw a few years ago, should be a thing of the past, but is it totally gone? I wish to explain a little of the worries I have.

I am pleased that the Government have now decided to include war crimes alongside torture, crimes against humanity, genocide and sexual crimes, such as a rape, as being not subject to a statutory presumption against prosecution. That is good news, because, as others have said, it might stop our service personnel being dragged before the ICC in the future. So we must now prosecute war crimes like any other crime, but might I suggest a slight spanner in the works here?

I have seen such crimes in my time in Bosnia, in 1992-93—obviously, I should emphasise, they were not carried out by British soldiers. I have also given evidence in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, where such crimes were tried—this is now done by the ICC. I gave evidence in trials where the guilty were sent to prison for between 15 and 45 years. I wonder exactly what crimes are not subject to a statute of limitation. What crimes creep through? As far as I can see, most of the definitions allow us to decide exactly what happens. I am quite worried that the Minister might not be able to identify a crime carried out that we could prosecute without a statute of limitation.

Sexual crimes can be prosecuted anyway under Navy, Army and Air Force Acts. Service personnel can never be ordered to carry out such acts by superior officers. Effectively, the Bill accepts and confirms crimes under the Sexual Offences Acts 1956 and 2003. The Bill states that unless there is compelling evidence, service personnel cannot be charged with crimes committed more than five years ago, unless of course they have taken part in war crimes, torture, crimes against humanity or genocide, which are offences without a time limit. As I mentioned earlier, I am slightly worried about what is left. Of course I go along with what we have done, but I am slightly worried that many crimes can evade the provisions and that people could be done on these classifications.

On service personnel who have suffered some form of physical or mental injury, the limit is broadly six years after the event. In short, they must have started proceedings against, say, the Ministry of Defence within that period. However, the Bill allows for the possibility of someone bringing forward proceedings where, for example, they have PTSD but had not discovered it, even if they are affected 20 years later. In such as case, they will have six years from the point when they discover they are affected or when they are diagnosed to bring a claim against the MOD. I reckon that is fair enough. The MOD is certainly not trying to disadvantage its own.

I end by reminding everyone of a point the Minister made. The Government are still committed to bringing forward a Bill to protect veterans in Northern Ireland in the same way as those who have served overseas. If they do not, our servicemen and servicewomen will have two levels of protection: those like me who served in Northern Ireland will have a lesser degree of protection than those who have served overseas. To that end, I have always believed and supported the suggestion by the Defence Committee, on which I served several years ago, that the way forward in Northern Ireland is for there to be a qualified statute of limitations unless compelling new evidence has been produced. I therefore hope that very soon the Government will bring forward legislation to stop possible unequal treatment of our service personnel.