If at any point during the meeting when members of the Committee ask you questions you cannot hear them, please indicate so that we can make the necessary arrangements.
I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill. We must stick to the timings in the programme motion that the Committee has agreed. For this session, we have until 10.30 am.
Do any members of the Committee wish to declare any relevant interests in connection with the Bill?
To err on the side of caution, I should say that I have served on overseas operations. I have also made a successful claim against the Ministry of Defence for my injuries during service.
I am Douglas Young, the former chairman of the British Armed Forces Federation. I am still a member and a member of its executive council. I have been asked by colleagues to present evidence today on behalf of the British Armed Forces Federation. We did submit detailed responses to the Ministry’s consultation last year.
Good morning, everybody. My name is Michael Sutcliff. I am the chairman of a small group called the Armed Forces Support Group, based up in Lancashire. Our worries are a conglomeration of things. We are a signposting group, and questions have been coming in regarding the Bill. Basically, it is déjà vu—we are here again. This has happened a number of times, and we would like to know how confident you are of getting these things through.
Thank you for introducing yourselves. I think there are some issues with the audio, because some Members are indicating to me that they cannot hear well what you are both saying. I propose asking Chris Evans to begin asking questions, and we will hope that we can improve the audio as we go along. If Members feel that the audio is unsatisfactory, we will pause proceedings to see what we can do.
Good morning, Mr Young and Mr Sutcliff. As we are on Zoom, will Mr Young speak first and Mr Sutcliff second? That will be easier than you talking over each other.Q
Both my questions are directed at both of you. The first question of the day is, does the MOD do enough to provide a duty of care to those service personnel who go through investigations and litigations at the moment?
In our opinion, the answer is no. Undoubtedly, the MOD has improved steadily. A lot of work has been done, but we are simply appalled by the experiences of some people who have absolutely been through the wringer for many years. One case, in particular, has only just come to an end, with a report by the Iraq fatalities inquiry. You can absolutely weep at the experiences of Major Robert Campbell and others who have been subjected to repeated investigations. Baroness Hallett’s report was very clear that everyone involved in the British forces’ deployment was completely innocent, and yet people say their lives have been ruined. That is awful. It has been recognised that a lot of work has been done, but it has not helped people who were already in the wringer. We certainly very much welcome the stated aims of this legislation.
I have to agree with the previous speaker. There is a great disappointment, Mr Chairman, that over the years there has been absolute chaos with this. If you look at the situation where Phil Shiner was allowed to spuriously bring all those cases so many times, this begins to really rot the trust within the MOD. A lot of senior officers seemed to have sloping shoulders at one time. Hopefully, these things are getting better. I take the case of the Major who has, I think, been lined up 14 times—14 times he has been exonerated, and here we go again. As I said earlier, we seem to be looking at this situation that has been gone through a number of times, and hopefully this time will be successful.
Q One of the issues that came out as this Bill began to make its way through Parliament was whether five years is the right period for cut-off. Why not seven or three, in your opinion? What is your opinion on the five-year rule?
We said that it should be 10—I think 10 is the absolute cut-off and the absolute longstop. That certainly was an option in the MOD’s original consultation. If you introduce shorter time limits, even more attention will have to be given to investigation and recording at the point that something occurs. I accept that this has been improved—I have no doubt that it has—but of course we are not currently subject to the intensity of operations, compared to the theatres where these cases first arose.
If you have a very short time limit of, say, five years, then there must be a huge effort in everyone’s interests— in the interests of potential victims, but also very much in the interests of the personnel involved—to absolutely record everything and to interview people. It can be an absolute pest, and it can be very grim going through all that, but it has got to be done at the time, rather than relying on people’s recollections afterwards, when, of course, they may have gone through a whole series of incidents during a six-month tour or longer and it can be very difficult to pick one out. So investigation and recording will be even more important than ever if you reduce the longstop time limit. I think we support the 10 years.
Just doing a quick poll, the team up here in the north seem to go for five to seven years, although I do not disagree with the previous speaker. But one of the dangers that there appears to be that, if you give it too long, the memories fade. We are struggling with memory-fade systems on the Bloody Sunday situation—that is a very good example.
If there is an accusation, it needs to be examined quickly and it needs to be sorted. But first of all—this is the difficult bit—somebody, somewhere, has to verify that it is real and it has not been made up by somebody, because there has been too much of that.
Q I do not want to dwell too much on the five-year limit set by the Bill, but could you provide any evidence or examples of why cases of torture might not be brought within that five-year limit?
There certainly are a number of very legitimate reasons for delaying. One would be simple concealment—perverting the course of justice and deliberate attempts to withhold evidence. Another one is where victims or complainants become aware of some evidence only later on because witnesses have been moved by the exigencies of war—they are refugees in another country or they are in a refugee camp—and people never had the chance to obtain information until after a substantial delay.
Of course, the other side of that is that people are then vulnerable to stories that are not actually true. If something happens in a crowd, for example, bereaved relatives later become aware of different stories flying about among that crowd that may not be true. That is the other side of it. But there are legitimate reasons for possible delay, because we are always assuming that, following our well-intentioned intervention supporting another country in operations, there will then be a period of peace and organisation, which may not actually be the case.
Q Moving on further from that, do you think that the Bill’s provisions extend to offences committed far beyond the traditional battlefield, and if so, what do you think the effect of that is?
References to the battlefield are sometimes misleading. A battlefield is a very specific thing. Quite often, when these sorts of issues have been discussed over the past few years, commentators talk about the battlefield in relation to everything that happens anywhere in the deployment area. There is no doubt that if you are deployed anywhere, you are in harm’s way, and your possibly peaceful base environment may actually become a battlefield at very short notice—there is no doubt about that. Being in harm’s way is different from normal life in the peaceful United Kingdom, but, quite often, commentators have discussed these issues as if everything consisted of fighting through the enemy objective, which is a very long way, for example, from injuries or illness that occur in barracks or in other areas directly controlled by the United Kingdom forces. I do not know whether that answers your question.
I agree. The term “battlefield” is often misleading. The battlefield could mean the backstreets of Basra or Belfast. It could mean the peacekeeping guys out in the far beyond place where we have them at the moment, where, theoretically, there is no war but where, sooner or later, the rebels will come out of the bush. Those are battlefields. Identifying a battlefield only as somewhere with tanks, aircraft, ships and everything else is incorrect. To answer your question, this should be very wide ranging—safely.
Q I want to move on to troop welfare, which you are both very well briefed in. How many troops have you supported who have gone through repeat investigations, and what does the Bill do for those who have been dragged through repeat investigations?
The aim is that fewer personnel and veterans will be dragged through them in the future. Personally, I have had limited involvement with individuals who have been supported by the British Armed Forces Federation, although I have certainly spoken to individuals. I have some experience myself that is sensitive and which I cannot go into.
There is no doubt that talk about being dragged into an investigation is accurate. However willing one might be to serve the ends of justice and truth, it is a strain, and it hangs over you for a very long time. It forces you to continuously go back over what at the time was a stressful, difficult and challenging event. It possibly causes one to have to review one’s own actions and decisions in a confusing situation, because nobody does everything absolutely right when things are going wrong.
One is faced with a mixture of getting approaches out of the blue—a phone call saying, “We’d like to talk to you about this, that or the other” or “Something is coming up,” which can come at you at any time—and also dates that you know about, such as a court hearing on a particular date. All that, even for a perfectly innocent witness, hangs over you for a very long time. That is part of criminal justice, and armed forces personnel are not the only ones who may have to face this, but it has a real cost. The fact that one is really only a witness does not get you off the hook.
I believe that there has been a lot of exaggeration in the language used about claims. People have often spoken about a vast number of prosecutions. I think all of us—lay people, ordinary soldiers—understand prosecutions as criminal prosecutions. In fact, there have been very few of those, which we all know about, relating to recent operations. Some of these so-called prosecutions are actually civil claims by members of the armed forces and veterans. We have to be aware of exaggerated language. However, it is a strain and a stress, and being caught up in long-running investigations can have an impact on one’s family as well.
My personal situation regarding this is that I act in my role here as the welfare officer. Without going into too much detail, I can tell you about two individuals who were both involved with serious fighting and who both caused death to the opposite number—in-house. The fact that they had been through the wringer a few times was fairly obvious when you listened to their options—it was either them or the other. At the end of the day no charges were made, but the pressure put on those two guys was appalling.
On the other side, I have two guys who, even today in their early 70s, are looking over their shoulders and sleeping not too well at night, waiting for a knock on their door. I do not think the knock is going to come, but nevertheless, this situation is out. That is in a tiny little place where I live, so what is happening out in the big wide world, I do not know, but it is not very satisfactory. I hope that gives you a reasonable answer, sir.
Q One of the criticisms of this Bill is the six-year time limit for civil cases against the MOD in respect of personal injury or death during overseas operations. First, should it be longer, and secondly, do you think it puts troops and veterans at a disadvantage compared with their civilian counterparts?
I think six years is a reasonable presumptive time limit for civil payment, and corresponds pretty much to the legal system in the different parts of the United Kingdom, but we would be concerned about the absolute longstop. As I mentioned before, claims of this type often originate during conflict or in post-conflict periods, when the claimants may be refugees or internally displaced persons. Perhaps a robust administrative payment system operating in-theatre would help to speed things up, because, clearly, some people have perfectly legitimate claims that should be met, and claims do not always imply criminal liability, which is what we are sometimes led to believe.
Imposing an absolute time limit places armed forces personnel claimants themselves at a disadvantage compared with civil claimants in ordinary life, where the court has discretion. Of course, the Minister has made it perfectly clear, absolutely correctly, that the time limit for this particular part of the Bill only starts to run at the point of knowledge. That is completely understood. That point of knowledge, diagnosis or whatever, could be many years later. Nevertheless, I would have a worry about an absolute longstop as proposed.
Q To give some context to that, what I was thinking of with that question was nuclear test veterans and also the knowledge we have now about asbestos and asbestosis. These issues took numbers of years to emerge before we found there was a problem, and I am concerned that if we have another issue that we do not know about at the moment—chemicals that we then find out are life-threatening—the limit could have an adverse effect on troops bringing civil claims against the MOD. That was the background to my question.
They are being compensated for it, so you are right that if we had a very early backstop, they would have lost that. Not being the lawyerly mind, I do not know whether you can split the two things up. Let us just take the asbestos as an example, which is a workplace situation that was or is found particularly in the Royal Navy, and the difference between that and an action situation. I do not know whether you can divide the two, but on one side, I am looking at the fact that you do not want it to go on forever, and on the other side, of course, in the example that we are talking about, forever is needed before you suddenly find you have it. That is the best muddled answer I can give you.
Q There has been criticism in some quarters that the six-year limit breaches the armed forces covenant. Again, that was prevalent as the Bill began its parliamentary journey. Do you believe that the Bill in any way breaches the armed forces covenant?
Various aspects of the covenant may be engaged by this legislation. Whenever we mention the covenant, it is worth saying that the stated aim of the legislation is to improve the position under the covenant, or to be guided by the covenant in removing what is considered to be unfair treatment of members of the armed forces compared with other, ordinary people who are never subjected to quite the same lengthy legislation. But there is certainly the argument that restricting the right of armed forces personnel and veterans to sue their employer for an injury or illness caused by a fault during their employment is against the military covenant, so there are two sides to that.
I entirely agree. The covenant is fairly new, and as we progress and go through this, we will have to tweak it here and there. I see what is in front of me in the Bill as quite positive, but we need to look at these little things to ensure that service personnel are not limited or restricted any more than civilians should be. The idea of the covenant is to help and support you in the civilian life you have just entered, so having sticking blocks in it is not a good idea.
Q I have taken enough time and know that colleagues want to come in, but I will end with a quick, simple question. How do you think veterans and their families will react to the Bill?
There is no doubt that the Bill and its principles have been widely welcomed. I think a lot of people will see the headline that, as promised by the Government, action is being taken to put a stop to the industrial level of claims. As I mentioned before, I think there is some exaggeration behind some of that, although there is absolutely no doubt that many have suffered disgracefully and that should never have happened. However, I have some doubts about the scale of what is involved.
The Ministry has at times understandably encouraged the idea of prosecutions and welfare, and some of it is claimed by members of the armed forces. Let us not forget, of course, that there are perfectly genuine and reasonable claimants who have sought compensation for something that did happen to them, but across the board I would say there is a qualified sigh of relief. A lot of people welcome it.
I have seen pretty strong views against as well, and these views are not all from, if you like, the usual suspects who are suspicious of the armed forces or not particularly sympathetic to the armed forces. Some of the criticism has come from people with a lot of relevant experience. For example, the field marshal and the general who wrote the letter were described by some as “meddling generals”, and they probably knew very little about the two individuals concerned, who certainly know what a battlefield looks like and the consequences of putting people in harm’s way. I want to encourage this Committee in its scrutiny of the Bill in case of unintended consequences, or even intended consequences, that might trick the Ministry of Defence but might not be quite what those involved are looking for.
From our point of view, it starts with a big hope. We have been here before, as I said at the start, as there have been several attempts. They all seemed to be Ministers saying, “We are going to do this, that and the other,” and then suddenly some bug is found somewhere and it never happens. There is a hope that this is going to go through. I take the great point just made to the Committee: please scrutinise the Bill as carefully as you can. Often the MOD is seen as the enemy of its men, which is the wrong way to see it and really is a bit of an issue. Do not let the Leigh Days of this world anywhere near it, because they will screw it up.
The object of the exercise is to look after your service and ex-service personnel in the best way you can. If you read the papers about a number of MPs voting against it, I hope you will see that there is concern out here in the big wide world and we are at your mercy—do a good job.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank the witnesses for giving evidence today, albeit Q virtually. I have a couple of questions on the effects of the present regime on servicemen and women and their families. First, can each of you describe the effect of the present regime of repeated claims, sometimes over decades, on the mental health of the individual, of their fellow servicemen and women, and of their children and families?
I think we have touched already on the dire mental health effects of repeated investigations, for example, and even simply of participation in combat operations. The British Armed Forces Federation has been involved in many of these issues. In campaigning about mental health in the armed forces in the past, we have given evidence to a parliamentary inquiry into healthcare for members of the armed forces. I have some experience myself, because I am a qualified caseworker and office bearer in a major national charity that supports armed forces personnel, veterans and their families.
Not all mental health problems among the armed forces and veterans are attributable to combat; there are many other factors. There can be a different pattern in illness between armed forces people and people outside. Obviously there is a huge overlap, but they can present slightly differently.
Years ago, not long after BAFF was formed, we had the case of an individual who had sought psychiatric support through the NHS. He had been assigned to take part in group therapy. In the group therapy he described the incidents to which he attributed his illness, but after a while he was asked to stop coming because he was making all the other patients worse. There is a need for targeted mental health support where people are willing to accept tailored support. Of course, some people may not wish to be in any way associated with the armed forces, even though their problems may be attributable to that.
We certainly support everything that has been done. Things have improved. The Ministry of Defence has been doing a lot in this area, as have charities such as Combat Stress, but there is always more to be done. I frequently meet people—not directly through that, but at veterans breakfasts and the like—who are clearly suffering. It is a huge problem, which we need to understand and perhaps not exaggerate. The vast majority of people who have served in the armed forces are very effective future employees, marriage partners and so on. They tend to do well. Our veterans are not all weighed down by problems.
To answer your question from my end, I have been doing this job for about 16 years now. I would put it this way: the stress from being in the armed forces is very different from that of the outside world. What does it do to marriages? In some cases, of course, it breaks a marriage, and it would be quite wrong to say that it does not. There are an enormous number of very supportive wives out there who help their husbands through. Certainly, if the family is mixed up and falling out, it affects the children.
I have to tell you that, from my personal point of view, I was not suffering from anything other than the fact that I joined the services at 15 and came out at 30-something into the big wide world. My wife and I were strangers—that was an example. It worried me so much some years ago that I have actually taken a course on service mental health, so that I can understand myself. [Inaudible.]
I agree that it is getting better. There are a number of groups out there that can help in this situation. The local NHS here is very good. We have some good doctors. We operate here in our little world. The door is open and we say, “If you have a problem, come and talk to us about it.” We get people who do that. We have dragged one or two back from the brink, which I am very happy about, but it is not thousands. Do not get too carried away with that. I have spoken to the local colonel and he said to me, “Everybody thinks that every soldier, sailor and airman has PTSD, and it works out at about 3% of us.” However, that 3% goes back to Cyprus and everywhere else—there is a lot in the 3%.
We are doing better, and we can do better. All of us are beginning to understand things better, and there are clever people out there coming up with good ideas every day. Hopefully that gives you the situation. But yes, obviously it destroys families and puts great stress and strain on them—there is no getting away from that.
Q It was not so much a question about general mental health and the effects on fellow servicemen and families; it was about the absence of the protection that the Bill is bringing through. Do you agree with the Government’s idea that mental health will be helped if these sorts of vexatious or unnecessary and unmerited claims are stopped? Will that help servicemen and women, their fellow workers and their families? That is what the question was aimed at, in your experience.
Given that endless investigations and the fear of prosecution—sometimes unfounded fear—have had an effect on individuals’ mental health and that of their families, it follows that if that at least can be reduced, then fewer people will suffer from the same deleterious effects on mental health.
Q In terms of how that could spoil the retirement of someone who has retired from the services—the fear of someone knocking on the door in the morning to cart them off for yet another series of questioning—is that something that is realistic, or is that fear fanciful? Will the Bill stop that?
There have been very serious allegations concerning the approach taken by investigators earlier on, under the IHAT investigation. We do not know fully the truth of those, but certainly in cases investigators who had no actual police powers acted excessively. I do not believe—or, certainly, I have not been told—that that sort of thing has been happening more recently.
The Bill should not affect that, except perhaps by removing scope altogether, but it will not have a direct effect on the treatment by investigators arriving at the door. It is an important area, and the Ministry of Defence, in so far as it has not already done so, should certainly take that on board.
People who are being investigated or engaged as potential witnesses have said that they do not feel supported by the MOD. The MOD arranges them—in some cases, they have some legal support—but the MOD is not actually on their side. I can understand that—you cannot tell a witness what to say—but a number of people have written, and I have now heard it myself directly, about how they did not feel adequately supported by the MOD. Sometimes, if they were still serving, they were told, “Well, your unit should be supporting you,” but that unit might not be the one that they have a particular connection with. The question of support and attitudes towards potential witnesses and suspects requires close attention, but is perhaps not directly addressed by the Bill.
I have not seen that. We have had a couple of instances here. One guy had literally barricaded his house. He was worried about these guys turning up, but they never did. It took a while to calm him down. I have a couple of chaps who are still a little worried about a knock on the door, but they have not come. But I have not heard about these people knocking about for a while—at one time this was hitting the headlines quite often, but it is not at the moment. Of course it has an effect on people, and it is wrong. It is not being done properly.
Q Some who oppose the Bill say that it will protect people who have in effect committed or been involved in torture. Do either of you have any personal experience—do say if this is simply outside your experience—of those who have suffered investigation for pure torture? I want to get a handle on how frequent these allegations really are and whether there is any justification for opposing the Bill on that ground.
I have no direct experience of a member of the British armed forces who has been accused of torture; I have no direct knowledge. I have personally interviewed a very recent victim. I say “very recent”; it was years ago, but he had very recently been tortured by foreign armed forces and I saw his injuries.
I have very serious concerns about torture being treated differently from sexual offences—that sexual offences have been singled out as not subject to the same time limits that torture is. I would say that the two broad areas of offence are very similar. They may take place for base motives. They are certainly inappropriate. They are about using power against someone who has no control over the situation. And they very often take place behind closed doors, so it may be very difficult to take evidence—if torture or sexual offences have occurred within a base, other people in the area may not know about it at the time. So I have very serious concerns about the exemption, if you like, for torture and it being treated differently from sexual offences. The suggestion is that that is for reasons of political correctness: “Sexual offences? Oh no, we must keep them aligned, but torture we won’t oppose.” I do have worries about that.
Thank you, Mr Mundell. CouldQ I take Mr Young back to something he said earlier? One reason given for the Bill being brought forward is the industrial scale of claims against the MOD. You said that you reckoned there might be exaggerations about that. How big an exaggeration do you think it is?
I cannot quantify it, but I certainly have seen a suggestion that a large proportion of actual claims has been on behalf of forces personnel—[Inaudible.] Only the MOD can really answer that. I have mentioned before my concern about some of the language. Lawfare actually exists and it is a threat, but many of the cases are not lawfare at all in the sense of being employed by bad or malicious actors in order to make things difficult for the United Kingdom. Many of the cases are not like that at all. If people feel that they have a claim, they will make a claim. It is exactly the same in this country. Why wouldn’t you, if you were in Basra or Helmand and you thought you had a genuine claim? People exaggerate. I have absolutely had experience of that in the Balkans. People tell stories and it is difficult to get to the truth.
Q Part 2 of the Bill proposes a six-year limit for civil claims against the MOD. Typically that would be personnel who have suffered injury as a result of MOD neglect or negligence. Why do you think a six-year limit has been put forward?
Q Without an absolute longstop limit, do you foresee difficulties, or have you had any experience where people have had injuries that have only come to light, or where they have only claimed, much later than that six years?
Q Could I put the same question to Mr Sutcliff? Can you see any difficulty? You talked about your experience in the Royal Navy. Can you see any difficulty whereby a situation might arise and an individual might want to claim beyond the six-year limit?
The example I gave you is exactly that. I can see it for everyday injury, but when you are using equipment, machinery and things like that—this problem with asbestos literally only started raising its head many years ago. To be fair, the MOD dealt with that very fairly. There are always exceptions to the rule. You should be able to make a submission as something that arrives and is seen by the necessary medical people or scientists as an issue. I am not sure that that answers your question, but you cannot just shut things down like that, or else we would have been in trouble.
Q I suppose the reason for my question is that different organisations have concerns that some conditions come to light and the individual has left a period of time before actually pursuing a claim, so although it has come to light on a particular date, the limit would prevent them from pursuing the claim. There are issues like, for example, radiation poisoning or hearing loss.
One thing about a shorter period is that, properly described by the MOD and by lawyers and others, a shorter time, if properly used, would actually remind people that the clock is ticking and that they need to get in. So there is that case for shortening that limit, but we should be careful.
Thank you to the witnesses. We have reached the end of the time. I apologise to the two Members who wished to put questions but were unable to do so. Thank you, gentlemen, for joining us and engaging with the technology successfully.