Amendment 19

Part of Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill - Committee (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 9 March 2021.

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Photo of Lord Stirrup Lord Stirrup Crossbench 9:30, 9 March 2021

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 29, to which I have attached my name. Its purpose is to ensure that service personnel are not debarred by time from pursuing claims against the Government for harm suffered on overseas operations. Of course, the purpose of the Bill is to provide reassurance to those very personnel that they will be to some degree protected against malicious proceedings, so it seems rather perverse that the Bill should also seek to prevent them gaining redress for harm that they themselves suffered. The Government have asserted that such an outcome is not their intention, and of course I accept that. However, the question is not the present Government’s intention but the potential consequences of the Bill as worded. It seems that one consequence might well be to deprive a number of serving personnel or veterans of their right to pursue a claim against the Government.

Part of the Government’s response to this concern is to stress the small numbers involved. They say that some 94% of service personnel and veterans who brought claims relating to events in Iraq and Afghanistan did so within six years. Are we then to assume that, had the proposed timescale been applied to them, the Government believe that it would have been acceptable for the other 6% to lose the opportunity to pursue their cases? The Government also say that the vast majority of cases relate to events in the UK, not to overseas operations. That may be so, but to argue that only a small number of service personnel would suffer injustice does not seem a respectable position for a Government to take at any time, let alone in a Bill that is supposed to provide support and reassurance to those people.

This timescale is very different from the one proposed in Part 1. The latter, as I observed earlier, does not introduce a significant legal watershed. Complaints can still be brought to prosecution, subject to certain tests that ought to be applied with or without the Bill. The time limit placed upon complaints brought by service personnel or veterans is of a very different character. It is not a high bar—it is an impassable wall. In support of this absolute limit the Government have prayed in aid statements from the courts about the need for limitation periods in civil litigation to ensure legal certainty and finality and to avoid the need to adjudicate on events so far past that memories and evidence become too unreliable. Of course I see the sense in that, but why six years? Upon what empirical data is such a time period based?

I listened very carefully to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, but since the expiry of the proposed time limit would have such dramatic legal consequences, there seems to be a powerful argument for a much longer period in this case. That which is proposed in the current Bill is too short, too disadvantageous to serving personnel and veterans, and should be reconsidered.