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 Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields 4:00 pm, 27th April 2021

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. and respected Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart).

It is welcome that the Government have eventually accepted that war crimes should be excluded from the Bill. However, that it took this long for them to understand the grave implications of their proposals remains very worrying. What remains of concern is the stubborn refusal to introduce a duty of care to our service personnel. I am still at a total loss as to why the Government would reject and oppose care standards for service personnel and veterans involved in investigations or litigations arising from overseas operations.

I was not comforted by the Minister’s words last week—neither, indeed, was I just now—when he assured us that,

The Ministry of Defence takes very seriously its duty of care for service personnel and veterans, for whom there already exists a comprehensive range of legal, pastoral, welfare and mental health support”,

bearing in mind the testimonies from those in my own constituency and those who gave evidence to the Bill Committee of how inaccessible and ineffective that support can be. I was even less assured after reading the media comments made by Johnny Mercer, who said that help is available, yet it is hard to understand it and

“hard to understand where it is”,

and that promoting where it is and how to get to it was simply not part of this Government’s agenda.

The Minister also claimed that the Lords amendment carries a risk of

“unintended consequences, including a possible increase in litigation, which would be contrary to the Bill’s objectives.”

As the noble Lord Dannatt said in the other place, that is simply an empty argument because, under the amendment, the Ministry of Defence has the opportunity to draw up its own statement of a duty of care standard and act within that. I reiterate my comments from last week—that to claim that the duty of care proposals would be better placed in the Armed Forces Bill is not acceptable. We are debating and voting today on this Bill; it is not right for MPs to accept gaps in legislation on the promise that it may or may not be rectified in future legislation.

The Bill’s objective is to offer more protection and support to service personnel and veterans, so how can an amendment that offers just that protection and support be, as the Minister said last week,

“contrary to the Bill’s objectives”?—[Official Report, 21 April 2021; Vol. 692, c. 1058.]

I would really appreciate it if, in summing up, the Minister could expand on and clarify why the Government’s stubborn objection to this duty of care has remained. There still remains nothing in the Bill that will solve the problem of repeated investigations. Without Lords amendment 5B, there is nothing in the Bill that will afford our forces personnel and veterans a duty of care when they are undergoing such awful investigations.

I remain of the view that this Bill is a hurried and inadequate piece of legislation that has never matched up to the rhetoric surrounding it. No one is in disagreement that greater legal protections for armed forces personnel and veterans serving overseas were needed, but the Government have drafted legislation that makes the problem worse, leaves our service personnel and veterans at a disadvantage and without crucial support, and fails on its promise to those who served in Northern Ireland.

Our service personnel and veterans deserve the very best for risking their all for us; I echo the pleas made by my right hon. Friend John Healey that, in today’s vote, Government Members show that they believe this too by joining us in the Lobby.