Motion E1 (as an amendment to Motion E)

Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill - Commons Reasons and Amendments – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 26th April 2021.

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Lord Dannatt:

Moved by Lord Dannatt

As an amendment to Motion E, at end insert “but do propose Amendment 5B in lieu—

5B: After Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—“Duty of care to service personnel(1) The Secretary of State must establish a duty of care standard in relation to legal, pastoral and mental health support provided to service personnel involved in investigations or litigation arising from overseas operations, as defined in subsection (6) of section 1.(2) The Secretary of State must lay a copy of this standard before Parliament within six months of the date on which this Act is passed.(3) The Secretary of State must thereafter in each calendar year—(a) prepare a duty of care update, and(b) include the update in the Armed Forces Covenant annual report when it is laid before Parliament.(4) The duty of care update is a review about the continuous process and improvement to meet the duty of care standard established in subsection (1), in particular in relation to incidents arising from overseas operations of—(a) litigation and investigations brought against service personnel for allegations of criminal misconduct and wrongdoing;(b) judicial reviews and inquiries into allegations of misconduct by service personnel;(c) such other related fields as the Secretary of State may determine.(5) In subsection (1) “service personnel” means—(a) members of the regular forces and the reserve forces;(b) members of British overseas territory forces who are subject to service law;(c) former members of any of Her Majesty’s forces who are ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom; and(d) where relevant, family members of any person meeting the definition within paragraph (a), (b) or (c).(6) In subsection (1) “duty of care” means both the legal and moral obligation of the Ministry of Defence to ensure the wellbeing of service personnel.(7) None of the provisions of this section may be used to alter the principle of combat immunity.””

Photo of Lord Dannatt Lord Dannatt Crossbench

My Lords, it is with predictable disappointment, but no less determination, that I return to commending to your Lordships the amendment in my name to establish a duty of care standard. I draw your Lordships’ attention to the fact that in Committee and on Report this amendment stood in the names of the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Boyce and Lord Stirrup, thus reflecting support from former Chiefs of Staff of all three armed services.

It is fair to say that this overseas operations Bill has had something of a troubled passage through Parliament. It is extraordinary to note that the Minister piloting the Bill in the other place has now left his appointment as the Minister for Defence People and Veterans. What that says about smooth, joined-up government is a matter for speculation.

Notwithstanding the welcome concessions made by the Government this afternoon pertaining to our obligations under international law and Britain’s reputation as an upholder of a rules-based international community, the Bill is also about the wider interests of the people Mr Mercer in the other place sought to champion—namely, our defence people and veterans. The serving and veteran communities have been looking to the Bill to provide better protection from repeated, extended and vexatious investigations and possible prosecutions following their service overseas on deployed operations.

No one suggests for a moment that anyone is above the law. Indeed, soldiers take up arms only to protect the law, but when this new Bill passes into law it will singularly fail to provide the protection that serving and veteran members of the Armed Forces believe it should provide. For this reason, the duty of care standard amendment has been tabled to improve this Bill and enable it to achieve one of its original objectives. That it has been consistently opposed by government Ministers and the government majority in the other place is both puzzling and disappointing.

If the Government argue that the Bill as drafted would give serving and veteran members of the Armed Forces the protection that they seek and do not accept my amendment, will they commit to issuing a clear statement down the chain of command and out to the various veterans’ organisations as to how the Bill benefits and protects them? Those who are serving or have served have the right to believe that their employer will protect their interests. The Government have brought forward or implied various reasons why they will not support this duty of care standard amendment. It has been suggested that such an amendment is not necessary, in which case I repeat my request for a clear statement of benefit to be briefed to serving and veteran members of the Armed Forces.

It has been suggested that setting out a duty of care standard will invite further litigation from Armed Forces personnel. As I have argued previously, this is an empty argument, as in the amendment the Ministry of Defence has the opportunity to draw up its own statement of a duty of care standard, then act within it. That sounds to me like sensible, good practice to me—not something to be fearful of.

It has also been suggested to me that setting out a duty of care standard would create an unfortunate precedent. That argument misses the point as well. The inclusion of an Armed Forces covenant in the Armed Forces Act 2011 illustrates that the Armed Forces are acknowledged to be in a different category of employment from civilian occupations. The Armed Forces covenant was crafted and designed to recognise and protect that difference, so the argument of creating a precedent is also an empty one. The Armed Forces are in an employment category of their own.

Finally, I believe I have every right to be fearful. If the Government are failing to protect their employees from repeated, extended and vexatious investigations arising from overseas operations, what chance do Northern Ireland veterans have of gaining similar protection? I am not holding my breath, despite often-repeated statements that legislation would be introduced to address that problem too. I beg to move Motion E1 as an amendment to Motion E.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I have not received any requests from unlisted speakers. Does anyone in the Chamber wish to speak? No. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, this amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, raises an important issue. Although we did indeed receive the Written Ministerial Statement, it did not go far enough. It is absolutely clear that the Government wish to make commitments to service men and women—the Bill was intended to do so—yet, when we get down to the details and requests to support the Armed Forces covenant and to ensure that the rights of service men and women and veterans are respected, the detail seems to disappear.

This amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, perhaps does not go far enough. Such a duty of care should arguably be for all service personnel, whether overseas or at home, and for all activities. Had the noble Lord tabled such an amendment, he would almost certainly have been told it was out of scope of the Bill. Therefore, this is in many ways a modest amendment but a very important one. If the purpose of the Bill, as the Minister has pointed out—and pointed out so many times in the earlier stages of the Bill—is to stop vexatious claims, investigations and so on that are deleterious to the health and well-being of service personnel and veterans, the least the MoD can do is to commit to supporting service personnel and veterans going through the difficulties of investigations and prosecutions.

It is a limited but very important amendment. I am sure the Minister has been listening, because she has done a fantastic job of listening to us over many hours of debate. But if she has been listening, she has not yet yielded any ground whatever. Might she feel able to move at all? Otherwise, I suspect I will follow the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, through the virtual Lobby to support this amendment.

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport)

My Lords, we remain four-square behind the important amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, to provide a duty of care standard for personnel and veterans who face investigations and litigations. It remains unclear why the Government will not accept this limited proposal. If it is simply because they fear being sued for not fulfilling their responsibilities, I simply say to the Minister that all the Government need to do is to make sure their duty is fulfilled in the first place.

It has been suggested that it is unreasonable to single out the Armed Forces for this protection but, as the noble Baroness just pointed out, the covenant shows that the law recognises that being a soldier or serviceman in a combat situation is special and different. In no other job can you require somebody to go into a potentially lethal situation and, in the final analysis, die for their country. This amendment recognises that there needs to be something special when people have worked under conditions that those of us who have never been in that level of tension, responsibility and fear probably cannot understand. We can at least partly understand how difficult it must be. Surely, there should be a reciprocal movement by government, the command and the MoD to support those in such danger when they come under the aegis of the law and have the difficult job of defending themselves. This amendment merely makes sure that they are properly looked after and that anybody making decisions about how they are looked after recognises that, at the end of the day, there is hard legislation.

Since we last debated this amendment in this House, we have had a change of Minister for Defence People and Veterans—the ministerial lead for this legislation. While there are certainly mixed opinions about him, no one can fault Johnny Mercer’s passion or sense of mission. His resignation letter to the Prime Minister lays bare the failings of the Government on veterans’ concerns by saying that

“we continue to say all the right things” yet

“fail to match that with what we deliver”.

Clearly, there is an issue and we believe that having this duty of care on the face of the Bill will allow the Government to deliver while being reminded how Ministers come and go but statutory protection remains in place. We have heard how troops and their families who have been through the trauma of these long-running investigations have felt cut adrift from the Ministry of Defence. When Major Campbell was asked what support the MoD gave him, he replied simply: “There was none”.

We believe that the Government should think long and hard about this amendment. It is an unlikely coalition of three former Chiefs of Staff of their respective parts of the Armed Forces, politicians from around this Chamber, and many outside, who recognise the value of looking after our troops when they are in difficult times. This has to change and we believe that legislative change is the right way. We therefore support the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, in asking the Government to think again. If the noble Lord feels that he has had an unsatisfactory response and wishes to divide the House, we will support him.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, for their contributions. I realise that this is an important debate. It is an issue which, as I have recognised in previous contributions, elicits very strong and sincerely held views and feelings.

The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, referred to my former ministerial colleague, Johnny Mercer. I pay tribute to him and recognise his commitment to veterans, as I pay tribute to his successor, my honourable friend Leo Docherty, himself a former soldier, who has a deep and abiding interest in veterans.

I listened carefully to the contributions across the Chamber. What I have not heard in response to my attempt to describe the wide range of support which is offered to our Armed Forces personnel and veterans—through a range of directly provided services, likely to be the case, for example, with serving personnel; or in conjunction and co-operation with veterans’ charities; or through consultation with the devolved Administrations, many of whom are responsible for delivering the essential services and support which our veterans require; or through the Armed Forces Covenant and how we propose to develop that further in the Armed Forces Bill—is a detailed indication of where the MoD is falling short. I certainly feel it would be helpful to have greater clarity about what noble Lords think are the deficiencies of the MoD in this context.

I have also not heard a response to the Government’s legitimate concerns about the unintended consequences and the potential legal implications of creating a statutory duty of care. As I pointed out, this has to exist alongside the common-law doctrine of combat immunity and the very real concerns that this well-intended amendment could stray into and inhibit activity in the operational theatre. None of the contributions addressed these legal concerns or provided any alternative legal view. If one is available, it would be helpful to the discussion to hear what it is.

The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, made an important point about being sure that our Armed Forces personnel understand what this Bill means for them when it is passed. I acknowledge the significance of that observation. It is very important that there is an information and education process. I will certainly take that back and will attempt to reassure the noble Lord as to how we might make progress with that.

I have paid tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, because his interest in this has been enduring and his pursuit of his objective resolute and determined, but I am afraid that the Government are not persuaded by his arguments. I therefore ask the noble Lord to withdraw his Motion.

Photo of Lord Dannatt Lord Dannatt Crossbench 4:15 pm, 26th April 2021

My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for her thoughtful and measured response to this short debate. She made a number of entirely legitimate and fair points. She asked whether there could be a statement of detail on the concerns that a duty of care standard would meet, but I do not think that this Chamber is the place to get into a detailed drafting session. The purpose of the amendment is a purpose in principle to establish the desirability of a statement on a duty of care standard; this should stand on its own.

Going beyond that, the drafting of the amendment is such that the initiative remains with the Ministry of Defence to draft the duty of care standard in the way that it wishes. This also addresses the legal question that the Minister posed. The answer is that, if the Ministry of Defence draws up its duty of care standard in a careful and thoughtful way then continues to operate within it, the unintended consequences of serving or former servicepeople litigating against the Ministry of Defence represent an empty argument, as I argued before.

However, I am grateful to the Minister for picking up the point that, if there are beneficial aspects to the Bill, they are extracted and put in an information format so that they can be briefed down the chain of command, as I asked, and to veterans’ organisations. As much as I welcome that move, why would the Ministry of Defence not do that at the conclusion of the Bill? Anyway, I am glad that the concession has been made and that that will happen.

Nevertheless, I believe that the case for setting out a clear duty of care standard remains extremely strong. There have been several references to the former Minister for Defence People and Veterans; as I understand it, he is currently sitting in the public gallery of a court in Belfast to show solidarity with two former servicemen who are being tried some 40 or 50 years after events took place. I salute Mr Mercer for doing that and continuing to champion veterans’ causes. Veterans look to him for leadership; they also look to a number of us former service chiefs for leadership.

I rise to that challenge to continue to provide leadership to the veteran community. I am therefore disappointed that the Government do not accept the need for the setting out of a detailed duty of care standard. I continue to press this issue, and therefore wish once again to test the opinion of the House and divide on this matter.

Ayes 312, Noes 243.

Division number 1 Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill - Commons Reasons and Amendments — Motion E1 (as an amendment to Motion E)

Aye: 312 Members of the House of Lords

No: 243 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Division conducted remotely on Motion E1

Motion E1 agreed.

The Bill was returned to the Commons with amendments.

Sitting suspended.