It is always best to put these things on the record.
Thank you, Mr Byrne, for joining us in person. Will you say who you are for the record, and who you are here on behalf of?
We are joined online by General Sir John McColl, who is chairman of the Confederation of Service Charities. Will you also confirm your name and designation for the record, General McColl?
For your information, in case you are not aware, we have a witness here in the room, Mr Charles Byrne, so we will be alternating between you and Mr Byrne. We have some logistical challenges, because we have to adhere to social distancing, so I am sure you will bear with us if those arise. We have until 12.15 for this session. I call on Stephen Morgan to begin the questioning.
Thank you, Chair. May I place on the record our gratitude for the work of the British Legion and other charities in this challenging time for our country? It has been an important year for the nation. Charles, does any aspect of the Bill risk breaching the armed forces covenantQ 155?
Thank you for the question. We welcome and understand the good intent behind the Bill. However, we have raised concerns that the six-year longstop could be a breach of the armed forces covenant, because it restricts the ability of armed forces personnel to bring a civil claim against their employer. As far as I understand it, that longstop limit does not apply elsewhere. That is the concern we have exactly.
General Sir John McColl:
First, I absolutely agree with Charles’s support for the intent of the Bill. The pernicious harassment of servicemen by the legal profession following the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan was absolutely disgraceful. We commend the efforts of the Government in bringing forward this legislation to try to address that issue.
In terms of the advantages and disadvantages, we absolutely acknowledge that the six-year cut-off will disadvantage some elements of the community—we understand that it is about 6% of cases. Of course, there is a judgment to be made between that disadvantage and the disadvantage experienced by the 94%, or the significant number of people, who may be subject to harassment. That is the balance of advantage.
I just observe, sitting in front of you as the chairman of the Confederation of Service Charities, that we members of the service charity community are not experts in law, human rights or legislation. Those are the remit of politicians, officials and lawyers. We can talk in broad terms about the interests of our community. We cannot talk about the detail of how to achieve the laudable intent of trying to put a stop to this appalling harassment.
Q Thank you for those answers, and for setting out your concerns about part 2 of the Bill. What do you want to see addressed? What would improve the legislation, based on the comments you have made?
Anything that can be done to address the fundamental concern about that six-year longstop. As I say, we support the intent behind the Bill and welcome that the impact on mental health is explicitly called out; that is very good. While there is good there, we think that the Bill could be improved if it is possible to address the six-year longstop that limits the ability to bring civil cases. There is some difficulty in the numbers as well—the 6% that Sir John refers to. We could look into the detail that sits behind that.
General Sir John McColl:
We encourage continuing consultation to find ways of ameliorating the difficulties of the 6%. However, we observe that the overriding requirement is to ensure that this harassment ceases.
Q I understand that the British Legion has seen a copy of the Bill’s impact assessment. Are there any concerns in there that you want to bring to the attention of the Committee?
Q On the Bill’s breaching the armed forces covenant, I do not think there is any dispute that, if you bring in any time limit on anything, people will fall either side of that line. However, disadvantage in the armed forces covenant is very clearly about comparing those in a similar situation—those in service and civilians—which is why the Bill applies to both groups.
You argue that someone serving in the armed forces will have that limitation and will therefore be disadvantaged, breaking the armed forces covenant. Service personnel will of course be able to serve in operations, where they may get killed or lose limbs, and some would argue that that is a disadvantage. The Government would argue that that is a misapplication of the armed forces covenant, and that, actually, if you compare a service person with a civilian in the same situation, there is no breach of the armed forces covenant. What would you say to that?
You have always been very clear about welcoming our challenge as a constructive effort, so we have had this conversation before, Minister. Thank you for the chance today.
For me, it is fairly simple. In the armed forces covenant, the principle of no disadvantage is not caveated to say, “It must be no disadvantage in directly comparable situations.” It is a principle of no disadvantage much more generally than that. This Bill would effectively prevent a member of the armed forces from being able to bring a case against their employer, which would be different from a civilian—
Q Of course, I understand that. But by extension of that, armed forces service—because you may well suffer the disadvantage of being killed—is, in fact, a breach of the armed forces covenant.
I think this Bill would be a breach of the armed forces covenant. If you look at the general principle, when we say that we do not want someone to be disadvantaged by their service, and think of a really straightforward example—one that you will well know—about people who move house regularly because of deployment, they therefore go to the back of the queue for dentistry or primary schools. That is where you are comparing somebody who works nearby—in a shop or a hospital—in a direct comparison, where we do not want the disadvantage. I think it does apply in very general terms.
Q Okay, so the disadvantage of serving is, in your view, not applicable in the case of being killed, but in this case where we are trying to protect our people, it is applicable. Do you see that there is a disparity there that is not really fair? It seems to be translating it to your own intent.
What happens if this Bill goes through is that it protects the Ministry of Defence from civil action—from someone bringing a case. That longstop does not protect the armed forces personnel. Is not that the intent behind the armed forces covenant—not to protect the MOD, but to protect armed forces personnel?
No, it is based upon a sample. Of the 70 cases that fell outside of the six months, only 39 were investigated—not all of them. Of those 39, 17 were found to have—so those were 17 actual cases. There could be another 31 from that sample size, which is taken only from Afghanistan and Iraq, as you know. There is a whole area of exclusions within that. So that number is a little bit—
Q Okay, but the idea that you can apply the armed forces covenant when it fits, and then not when it does not fit, I think is a misapplication of the armed forces covenant.
No, because what we are looking to do is to protect, and to ensure that our servicemen are not disadvantaged.
Indeed. I think we will have the opportunity for some of the issues that the Minister has raised in the parliamentary debate and in the subsequent discussion in Committee.
Q I have a supplementary question on that point. Everybody keeps talking about the longstop, but nobody brings in the one year from point of knowledge. That point of knowledge could be 25 years afterwards. We cannot have the longstop argument without that point. If there was no—[Interruption.]
Just to explain it to you, General McColl, that bell is not a fire alarm or for a vote; it signals the fact that the House of Commons has suspended its sitting in the Chamber for three minutes. We will hear another bell shortly, so just be aware of that.
If that one year from point of knowledge was not in there, I would get your argument. I believe that we are here to try and get the best for our service personnel and veterans. However, that one year from point of knowledge has to have the weight. That is why it has been put in there—it could be 20 to 30 years later. We heard the other day about asbestosis. That is not within a six-year period. There will be things that some in the veteran community experience in 20 years that we do not yet know exist.
We recognise and understand that there is that point of knowledge, which is a really powerful and important principle in there. Then we look at the recent sample survey of that limited pool of data and we find 19 cases where, even from point of knowledge, they would have fallen outside that six-month period. Even allowing for the point of knowledge, there are still 19 families and veterans who would not have been able to bring a case under the Bill.
Q When I got involved in politics, I found out through Facebook about the armed forces covenant. When I was shot, I paid for all my own treatment. I did not get any support from the charities or anything else. I had fallen out of the system and I did not know about the covenant. I am now under the trauma unit in Birmingham, where they review me regularly. I think it was two years after that was formed, and I still did not know about it.
There has to be education about the Bill as well. I really respect the work your organisation does, but within and outside the military there is a need to educate our troops and let people know about this. How do we connect with people who are now 60 or 70 years of age and let them know about the point of knowledge? It is not all about the Bill. I believe we have a role to educate the community, which we know well, about the point of knowledge. At the armed forces breakfasts and through all the different routes of communication, we can try to reduce that number. There will always be people who fall through, but we should do everything to stop them and there is a role for education. Do you see that role?
The Legion was always the organisation that championed and brought the armed forces covenant into law, so education is part of that. In an ideal world, we would get all that is good in the Bill and we would also address this area of concern, because we would not want anybody to fall out of that. We are looking to make sure that no veteran or member of the armed forces community is disadvantaged by a six-year stop, even allowing for the point of knowledge. It does not exist today. If we were to introduce it, it would be a limit that does not exist today.
Q There are proposals to put the armed forces covenant into law next year. Do you think a legally binding covenant and the Bill are compatible under English law?
Do you think a legally binding covenant is compatible with what we see in the Bill, in terms of the proposals that will be brought before Parliament next year?
It is an interesting question. On the general principle of strengthening the force of the armed forces covenant, I welcome that. In all honesty, on the considerations of how this might play out in that situation, I cannot give you an answer now.
The proposals for next year are to bring the armed forces covenant into law. Do you believe that a legally binding covenant and this Bill would be compatible under English law?
General Sir John McColl:
We are in consultation with the Government at the moment in relation to bringing the covenant into law. We have raised a number of issues with them, which the Minister who is sitting with you is very well aware of. Charles can support me here in terms of the concerns we have.
The first concern is that initially there was no mention of special consideration, in other words, for those who had given the most—those who had suffered bereavement or very serious injury. I understand that may now be in it. There was also a concern that it was limited, in that it dealt with three specific areas rather than the totality of the covenant. We continue to have concerns in that area, and we also have concerns that it seems to focus the effort on local government rather than central Government. Those are our major concerns. I am not sure whether I have answered your question, but those are the concerns that we have. We will be watching the consultation and participating in it.
No, we are not opposing the Bill. We think the Bill can be improved, which is why we are focusing on this particular element in the second part of the Bill. To be categorical, no, we are not opposing the Bill.
Q I am glad to hear that. Every Bill will never suit every person in every circumstance—that is just not possible—but would you not agree that the Bill makes great advancements to protect our veterans?
We certainly welcome the intent behind what we see the Bill is trying to do in, as the general said, trying to reduce pernicious, vexatious claims. However, we are looking to say, “Can we achieve those aims without disadvantaging service personnel?” If we can do both, both should be done.
The answer is the same: if there is good being done, we should aim to make that good go as far as possible and not exclude those who would be excluded by the six-year longstop allowing for the date of knowledge.
Could you give us examples of situations where individuals might fall out with this six-year limit?Q
In terms of specific examples, I cannot at the moment. I know from the sample size that was taken that there were, I think, 19 individuals or families who fell outside that. I do not have specific examples.
This is difficult, because what are the effects of loss or injury that might make somebody find it difficult and challenging to bring forward their cases? The obvious one that comes around is hearing loss, which I think was excluded from those numbers as well. When it is that small percentage, that excludes hearing loss. You can imagine that if there are conditions that are developed over a period of time that do not relate to just one field of operations, and that is a whole area that could fall outside the Bill. If the hearing loss is established over a period of time over a number of operations, you might not be able to trace it back to a particular overseas operation. That is just one example.
Q Do you agree that when people sign up for the armed forces, they understand that there is an element of risk with that?
Q Is there also an expectation on their employer, the Ministry of Defence, to look after them in the best possible way?
Absolutely, and this cuts both ways. We recognise that if we are asking that the armed forces maintain the highest standards when they go out and serve in difficult situations, there is an equally fair onus on their employer, the Ministry of Defence, to provide them with what is needed do that and the support that is needed.
Q Do you find it worrying that the Minister is arguing this morning that it is okay to disadvantage members of the armed forces or retired members of the armed forces because their service puts them at an inherent disadvantage?
Why does it put them at a disadvantage? Because, in my understanding, unless the civilian is being employed by the MOD in overseas operations, there is nowhere else where there is a similar time limit for cases of injury or death that could be brought to an employer. That is the difference.
Yes, indeed. I think there is a level of understanding that is required, but when people understand the potential for limiting the ability of veterans and armed forces personnel to bring claims, that would not be welcome.
Q How exactly does the Bill disadvantage troops compared to their civilian counterparts? What is the broader effect of that disadvantaging behaviour on the overall welfare and morale of service personnel, veterans and families?
The point we have been working around so far is that at the moment there is no time limit, even allowing for point of knowledge. This would introduce a time limit. That time limit does not apply more widely in other civilian cases, so we see that as a disadvantage. What impact might that have on morale? Good question. Would it possibly make those who get caught in this situation feel less valued? That would be my conclusion.
Q The Bill requires additional weight to be given to the stresses of operations when deciding to prosecute. To what extent do you think service personnel are adequately trained to deal with these stresses?
The Bill requires additional weight to be given to the stresses of operations when deciding to prosecute. To what extent do you think service personnel are adequately trained to deal with these stresses?
General Sir John McColl:
My personal opinion on that is that the training that service personnel receive generally for conducting operations is absolutely first class. Indeed, that will reflect on their conduct on operations and that conduct will be affected by the role of the chain of command. I think they are well prepared. I am sure there are exceptions and that there will be difficulties, but in general terms that is what I would say. It is a question that you should really be asking of the serving chiefs within the Ministry of Defence, rather than a retired general, such as myself.
General Sir John McColl:
Training can always be improved, there is no doubt about that. After every operation there is always analysis of the training people go through to ensure that they are prepared for whatever they may have to deal with. I am sure that is the case. The area where training has particularly improved over recent years, but continually needs to be improved, is that of mental resilience. If I am being honest, that is something we did not pay significant attention to in previous decades. We need to do better in that particular area.
I think this is an area I probably need to be careful about. Echoing John’s comments from the personal perspective, I was with friends last night, one of whom is still serving with the Royal Marines. He spoke very passionately about how well their training goes and a new element of the programme, I think called Regain. It is taken very seriously and good work is being done to recognise and address the mental stresses, the mental health and mental strain.
Charles, given that your principal objection to the Bill as it is drafted is in respect of your perceived view that it breaches the armed forces covenant, can you give us some examples of how you think that might manifest itself?Q
I think this is a point we have covered previously, so forgive me if I repeat myself. I think it is the same sort of question. We have seen the evidence that there are 19 cases where veterans’ families would not be able to bring a claim against the MOD because it would fall out of the proposed six-year time limit after the point of knowledge and all those other caveats. Those are the examples that we think would follow from the Bill and that is only of the ones that we know, and the ones where the data exists, for Afghanistan and Iraq.
Q This is the first Bill Committee that I have sat on as a new MP, and I have watched the process get to where it has got to already, notwithstanding the years it has taken to get to this stage. On Second Reading, and even in our last witness session, there were multiple calls to stop the Bill. If we produced a Bill that had everything in it that the British Legion has asked for, there would still be an organisation against the Bill. I saw on Tuesday that, broadly, veterans are in favour, legal firms are not. I am trying to figure that one out and I am sure I will get there in the end. What will the impact be for the veteran community if the Bill does not pass Third Reading and come into law? I ask that to General McColl first. If the Bill is stopped, what will the impact be on the veteran community?
General Sir John McColl:
Both Charles and I started off this hearing by saying that we welcomed the intent of the Bill. What veterans want to see is the pernicious harassment of veterans following operations by the legal profession stopped. If the Bill achieves that, they would regret the fact that it had been stopped.
I accept that there may be some trade-offs in doing so. Whether or not it is a breach of the covenant, there will be roughly 6% of people who may have brought cases against the MOD or the Government who can do so now and who will not be able to do so in future. We would wish to see that ameliorated. We would wish to see that in some way worked around. It is up to the Government to see if they can do that. The bottom line—I think that is what your question is getting at—is that we want to see harassment stopped. There may be some compromises required in doing that.
Thank you for that response, John, which helps to lay it out. The point of this process, and the consultation and the debate that we had, is to produce a better Bill at the end of the day. As I said before, the Minister has always been very clear that he welcomes our constructive challenge and disagreement.
You said that if this Bill addresses everything the Legion is looking for, it might not get through. There is not everything in there; there is a single focus point. There is a restriction introduced by the Bill, and if it can be removed, the Bill will be better. It seems to me that that is a good thing to do. As Sir John says, everybody wishes vexatious, pernicious claims against veterans to be addressed and reduced, and we fully support that intent. We want to make this better, which is why we have contributed and have always been very clear about our concerns in this area. If the Bill can be made better, I am sure you and veterans would welcome that.
Q To follow on from that and a point you made earlier, let us say that this Bill goes through the Committee and Parliament with no changes and becomes law. Would then a major campaign from the British Legion and others to educate about that one-year point of knowledge be a core focus of what you would be looking to do?
We are just about to go into our poppy appeal in the most difficult time we have ever had, so I would not give a commitment to any campaign. We do a lot to drive awareness of the armed forces covenant as it is, and we always have done. We are trying to build the awareness of all our services. We would welcome any support and help that you are able to give us on that.
Are there any further questions for either witness? As there are no further questions, I thank you, General McColl for your appearance online, and thank you, Mr Byrne, for your appearance in the room. I am grateful for your forbearance with the logistical issues we are managing today. Thank you, on behalf of the Committee, for your evidence.