I hope everyone had an enjoyable lunch. When we left off, I was still talking about investigations and what came through in the evidence we took. Mr Stringer, you and I are old enough to remember when Public Bill Committees did not hold evidence sessions. The process is far better now, because it informs the debate and our progress. Certainly, our witnesses gave valuable evidence, and from a variety of different positions. The one thing that did come through, however, was the lack of any reference in the Bill to investigation.
This morning I referred to Nick Parker’s comment that
“part 1 of the Bill focuses entirely on the process of prosecution, whereas for me the big issue here is the process of investigation”––[Official Report, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Public Bill Committee,
Last Thursday we had the Judge Advocate General before us. I was amazed that he had not even been consulted on the Bill before it was introduced. I would have thought that he, as the leading judge in the service justice system, would be a good starting point to run things by. He said in evidence:
“My concern relates to investigations, not prosecutions; but there are a number of issues”––[Official Report, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Public Bill Committee,
“looking at the wrong end of the telescope”––[Official Report, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Public Bill Committee,
I will now turn to the two amendments that stand in my name, amendment 2 and new clause 6. We did not get a chance to talk about amendment 2, which is also about investigations. It seeks to insert into clause 3:
“the thoroughness, promptness and efficacy of any ongoing investigation into the alleged conduct or any relevant previous investigation, and the reasons for any delays in such investigations”.
The purpose of that is to ensure that we get timely investigation. I will move on shortly to new clause 6, which talks about judicial oversight, because that is important, but we do not want to get into a situation in which the service military police or other people simply say, “Well, we’re not going to investigate because it’s too difficult.” We need oversight, but amendment 2 puts the focus on looking at the investigation, not only to ensure an adequate investigational process, but to give particular weight to the prosecution. In considering a case, therefore, a prosecutor should be able to consider the efficiency of the process and previous investigations that have taken place.
As a statement of principle, I would like the Bill to consider more effectively the way in which the investigation function in the military justice system can be amended. I am sorry that the Government do not seem to accept that that should be part of the Bill. I think I referred to it this morning. At least I know why the civil servants are not accepting that. The obvious thing to have done with the Bill would have been to have put it with the armed forces Bill that will be coming through next year. If there is one thing that I know from my experience of civil servants, it is that they like tidiness, and this process is not tidy. That would have been a better way of doing it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that witness after witness in the evidence sessions pointed to the centrality of good-quality investigation in removing the problem of vexatious and pluralistic claims?
Yes, and in a moment or two I will cover the important point that my hon. Friend raises. It is about efficiency in dealing with claims through an early process, so that when the evidence is not going to go anywhere, a claim can be dropped. As the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire said this morning, that is good for the efficiency of the system as well as for the individual. As Lieutenant Colonel Parker said, it is not just the prosecution case, but the mental torture that people go through when waiting for that. It would help servicemen and women going through that process to have an early resolution.
We did not get to discuss new clauses 6 and 7, so I will speak to them now. I understand, Mr Stringer, that they will be voted on at the end of this process. Is that correct?
One of the important things about the process is that we have judicial oversight of whatever happens. That is important for making the system robust and fair, both for those complaining and for those accused, as well as in relation to our international obligations. We have been a beacon of light in ensuring that we have an independent judiciary in this country, and it is important that we have oversight of that. Judge Blackett suggested things that could do that, and that could also make the system more efficient.
New clause 6 proposes to bring in judicial oversight of investigations. It would allow the judge advocate, once an investigation has come to its preliminary conclusions, to look at the evidence in the allegation as soon as possible, but no later than 6 months, and the judge, not the Ministry of Defence or the chain of command, would then make an assessment. It is important that the assessment is made by the judge advocate, who is part of the judiciary. The judge advocate would have
“the power to determine—
(a) that no serious, permanent or lasting psychological or physical injury has been caused; and order that the investigation should cease”.
If, at that stage, an indication was taken that the case was going nowhere, that would knock out all the vexatious cases, which is what we are trying to get at here. It would allow the individual who has been accused to move on. It would have the strength of having a judge make that decision. The clause moved this morning takes away more minor offences, allowing us to get down to the serious cases that need to be investigated and prosecuted.
My right hon. Friend is rightly seen as an expert on defence matters, having been in this House for a number of years. I wonder whether we could have the benefit of his experience. In his experience, both as a Minister and as a member of the Bill Committee, is he open to the suggestion that a number of these investigations are taking so long because of failures within the Ministry of Defence, and that that is why we have arrived where we are?
Yes. That is the problem. How do we get at it? Is it about a lack of resource? I think it is. Going back to Iraq and Afghanistan, as I said this morning, there was huge pressure from all sides, including the Conservative Opposition at the time, that these things had to be seen to be investigated to the nth degree. There was a culture, which led to a resistance to say in some cases, “There is no evidence to stand those.” If that was done politically, I understand why people have issues with that.
However, if there were a judicial process, which new clause 6 provides for, overseen by a judge, that would give confidence to the public and the international community, in relation to our obligations, that this was being done not for political reasons but because a judge had determined independently what the facts are. It would certainly help.
In response to a question the right hon. Gentleman raised last week, Judge Blackett said, in relation to the Magistrates’ Court Act 1980, that
“a great raft of those allegations in IHAT and Northmoor would have gone with that.”––[Official Report, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Public Bill Committee,
Is that not the right hon. Gentleman’s point? Much of what the Bill seeks to do could easily have been dealt with through existing legislation.
Well it could, but I am a defender of the service justice system, because I think it is unique. There are those who want to abolish the service justice system, who ask, “Why aren’t these tried in the civil courts?” I am against that, and I always have been, because of the unique nature of the circumstances and the way the system works. It is an independent judiciary, not part of the MOD, so it has respect. Courts martial understand not only the special nature of service, but the circumstances that people are in.
My fear is that this Bill will strengthen those who want to sweep away what they see as giving special privilege to the armed forces. I do not see it that way at all. It gives those men and women who go before it the chance to be judged by an informed judiciary, which deals with certain cases. That is the important point. Again, it comes back to judicial oversight.
New clause 6 states, in subsection (3)(b), that a judge can determine
“that the evidence is of a tenuous character because of weakness or vagueness or because of inconsistencies with other evidence, and that it is not in the interests of justice to continue an investigation”.
The judge would look at the evidence and make a judgment about the validity of the original claim, as well as what the investigation has thrown up. If the judge were subsequently to decide that the case should go no further, that is defendable, because it would be the judge’s decision.
Subsection (3)(c) presents the other side, where the judge may decide
“that there is merit in the complaint; and make directions as to the timetable and extent of further investigation.”
Clearly, if the judge looks at the evidence after six months and says, “Actually, there is a case here, and further leads from the investigation need to be taken forward,” it is important that that is allowed to happen. That is not stopping prosecutions or interfering in any way with the investigative process; it is reviewing the evidence and whether it will go forward. It would also give directions to set a timescale for that investigation to be completed.
In the Colonel Campbell case, he was investigated not only once, but a few times, for the same thing. Had this system been before a judge earlier, it would have stopped that type of reinvestigation of the same offence. It would also have given a judgment early, regardless of whether the original complaint was warranted. As the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire said this morning, that is about making the system more efficient in the way it works, but it is also about being fair to the individual.
Let us take the example of an individual who has been accused of some type of crime, an allegation having been made. If that is reviewed by a judge after six months and the individual then knows either that it will be kicked out and go no further—that is the end of it—or that further investigation is deemed necessary, there is also a time limit or some indication of time. There would have to be a re-examination, so we might want to have a time limit whereby a judge says, “Right, come back within the next six months to complete the thing.” We all know the nature of investigations—they might take longer than that, but at least we would have regular judicial oversight of the system, which we do not have today. That would be important.
I do not want to criticise the service police, because in some cases they have a hugely difficult job to do. It is not like going and investigating a house burglary in west London; it is often going on overseas operations to very difficult terrain. In some cases it is dangerous to gather evidence. In many cases we are dealing with different cultures and people for whom English is not their first language, so I am not criticising the service police. However, it would give them some rigour to know that, by a certain date, they at least have to come back before a judge to say what they have done in a certain case. In the cases that we have seen, a lot would have been fished out of this pool way before they got to the prosecution stage.
Again, the hon. Member asked Judge Blackett question last week in relation to Marine A. Judge Blackett responded that
“raised them at first instance—had all the psychiatric evidence that came out eventually appeared at the start—he probably would have been charged with manslaughter rather than murder”, ––[Official Report, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Public Bill Committee,
which is what he was charged with. It was actually on the second appeal that it was overturned and the prosecution was for manslaughter. Does the right hon. Member agree that the process is at fault and that, to improve that, the Government need to make substantial changes and investments in the process, rather than with the Bill?
It is the process. I am glad that the hon. Member has mentioned the case of Marine A, because the way it was dealt with worries me. People might not be familiar with it. It was an individual who was on operations in Afghanistan and shot, on camera, a wounded Taliban fighter. That case did not come about through an ambulance-chasing lawyer; it came about because somebody filmed the shooting and was so horrified by it that they handed in the video. That was not an ambulance-chasing lawyer saying, “This man’s killed somebody in cold blood.” That case is important.
The process being adopted concerns me for two reasons. My first concern, on the point we raised last week, is about the support that servicemen and women are getting while they are going through the process. Clearly, in that case, the individual did something that goes against everything that members of the armed forces are trained to do. But when we look at the overall envelope of what he had been up to—the psychological trauma and the other things he had been through—we could explain it not as murder, but as manslaughter. Again, if that case had gone through this type of system, it would have led to those issues around the individual’s mental health, which do not excuse his actions but obviously had an impact on what happened, and to the first issue being seen as manslaughter, which would have been a fairer way of dealing with it.
My second concern about the Bill is that if that happened more than five years after that case, the presumption would have been not to prosecute. There would then have been a political decision, because the Attorney General would be deciding on prosecution. That individual could then end up before the International Criminal Court, because we would deem that we had not prosecuted.
There was a media maelstrom around the case. As with many such cases that we have all dealt with, it got a nice headline in the Daily Mail or The Sun, but there were obviously more details to it. If we have a similar case in future on which there is to be a political decision, it will be a strong politician or Attorney General who will turn around and say, “Yes, I want to prosecute this person.” There would then be the danger of the International Criminal Court picking up the case. Whereas in the process that I am proposing in new clause 6, the judge would review all the evidence, including, in that case, whether he should have been charged with murder in the first place when it went to court or to appeal—and no, he should not have been.
As many Committee members have said, and certainly, having spoken to members of the armed forces and veterans, they do not want to be above the law; they want to be treated fairly. That is what we are here to ensure. I have spoken to the individuals involved in the Marine A case, who explained the reasons why it happened, which I understand. It did not fulfil the high standards that are expected of the armed forces. In that case, it is about being fair to members of our armed forces, and ensuring that we are doing the right thing. Again, the combination of new clause 8, which we debated this morning, and new clause 6 would start to reduce that pile of potential litigants, even if they came from vexatious lawyers or elsewhere.
The other issue, which I can never get my head around, is the idea that the same case can be reinvestigated, as in the Campbell case. That is just ridiculous. There must come a time when we have to say, “Well, it has been looked at in detail. There has been evidence.” There might be a delay to trawl for witnesses and other evidence, but in effect what that says is, “Basically, we will do a fishing exercise until we get the answers that we want.” That cannot be right.
My new clause 7 addresses some of the limitations around investigations. I think we on this Committee all want thorough investigations, and so do members of the armed forces; what they do not want is endless reinvestigations that go on for, in the Campbell case, 17 years. New clause 7 would put limitations on reinvestigation. The section applies where
“(a) a person has been acquitted of an offence relating to conduct on overseas operations,”
so it would apply to those individuals.
I know this is not within the scope of this Bill, and I am sure you would pull me up, Mr Stringer, if I mentioned other areas, but that is the problem with the title of the Bill: some of the things in here should apply to members of the armed forces if the offence was committed on the UK mainland, but they do not. That is why I come back to the point that it would be better to do these things in the Armed Forces Bill next year and to take a holistic approach. Obviously, there are political reasons why this Bill is being rushed forward, to meet a manifesto 100-day commitment. However, I think some of these things should apply in the UK, but they will not with this Bill, and no doubt they will have to be picked up in the Armed Forces Bill.
The section also applies where
“(b) a determination has been made that an investigation into an offence relating to such conduct should cease under section (Judicial oversight of investigations).
(2) No further investigation into the alleged conduct shall be commenced unless—
(a) compelling new evidence has become available”.
Again, this is about trying to stop that reinvestigation, but having judicial oversight. The judge advocate determines
“the totality of the evidence against the accused”,
and sees whether it is strong enough such that
“there is a real possibility that it would support a conviction.”
Let us go to the Campbell case: if that case came forward again, the judge would have to look at the evidence and see whether the material circumstances had changed since the last time the offence was looked at. The strength of doing it this way, rather than as proposed in this Bill, is that it is not about limitations of time and the presumption against prosecution; a judge will look at the evidence and there will be a process. That would avoid the reinvestigation of such complaints.
If there is compelling new evidence, I think we would all agree—not just in the military justice system, but in a civil case—that we would want it to be looked at again. That links to the time limits on investigations, which for the individual concerned would not then stretch out for an indeterminate length of time.
Regarding proposed new subsection (a) on new evidence, in evidence to the Committee last Thursday, in response to the hon. Member for Wrexham, the judge advocate gave as an example the six Royal Military Police who were sadly killed at Majar al-Kabir in 2003. Would this not allow us parity of esteem in the international judicial system? If new evidence came out in Iraq, we would demand that the Iraqi Government prosecute the individuals responsible for the murder of those six Royal Military Police.
Yes, I remember that case—it was awful, if you read the background to it. The Bill is basically saying, “We are going to do something different from what we expect of other people.” I am sorry, but that is just not acceptable. We have a high standard in this country of judicial law and the rule of law and, as I said earlier, we should be a beacon. We should say, “This is something we are proud of.” Anything that changes that would be detrimental, and not only to the armed forces, for the reasons that have been raised. It is just logic that, if new evidence comes forward in a case, it must be looked at; just to say that the reason it cannot be looked at is that it has gone past a certain time period is wrong. If we dismiss new evidence without looking at it and having any judicial oversight of it, that would be a mistake.
In terms of whether this is something novel and new, it is not, because we already have it in the UK. The Criminal Cases Review Commission can review prosecutions, look at the evidence and, if it finds a flaw, refer them to the Court of Appeal. I wondered whether we could have something similar in this area, but that would be cumbersome. What we need is to put cases before a judge, as at the Court of Appeal. I have had quite a lot to do with the Criminal Cases Review Commission—obviously not personally—regarding the Horizon scandal at the Post Office. Thankfully, last week it was announced that 44 convictions will be overturned. That is judicial oversight, and that is what is lacking in the Bill.
I do not doubt the Bill’s good intentions, but there are problems with how it has been done. Under new clause 7, new evidence would have to be compelling. It would not be a question of, “Can we have another trial of this case? or, as with the Shiner cases, where one case has been dismissed and a related one comes in, that previous case has to be reinvestigated all over again. The important point—I cannot reiterate this strongly enough—is that that limitation would be defensible in any international system because the scrutiny of the three stages mentioned in new clause 6, and as Judge Blackett said last week, would be done by judges and not, as the Bill proposes, by an Attorney General, who is a political appointment, with a presumption against prosecution.
As I look at the Bill, I think those things could be done now. The new clauses would certainly improve the Bill and get to the root of stopping vexatious prosecutions and investigations more effectively. I think there is a misunderstanding—I include the Minister in this—that the Bill will stop investigations within those five-year periods.
It is also important that we do not do anything to damage our international reputation. I looked at a tweet the Minister put out earlier this week. The linked article said:
“War crimes under international law in the Nuremberg sense, together with sex offences, are excluded from” the effects of the Bill. The Minister’s tweet said:
“Perhaps worth reading this before going off on one about the Overseas Bill…Committee stage continues tomorrow, and I actually get a chance to counter some of the ridiculous narrative around it.”
We have not heard much from the Minister apart from his civil service brief.
I am not being personal, but a Minister usually does more than read what is in front of him; he takes notes and engages. My proposals should be looked at seriously, because they would improve the Bill. The Minister says he wants to work with everybody, but he seems to have deaf ears when people make suggestions that would not harm but improve the Bill. It is not just me saying that, as someone who is passionate about protecting the armed forces; that is the evidence we have taken through this process. As I said earlier, that is the good thing about the process.
What would be the argument against accepting the new clauses? The only one I can see is that the Government want to deal with this next year in the Armed Forces Bill. Fair enough, but put them in now. They can be done now. We will not end up with any additional costs of process—in fact, that will save money. I know we do not have a money resolution with this Bill, so we cannot propose things that cost money, but I doubt whether those proposals will. As the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire said this morning, it is about making things efficient, and there are two wins here: one win with the process being slicker and quicker; and another win with the accused individual being dealt with fairly and robustly.
Turning to other parts of the clause, this morning we asked why five years, rather than 10, 15, 20 or whatever. I asked the Minister to justify that and I also asked about the numbers for who said what. He said they were in the impact assessment, but I could not find them when I looked at it at lunchtime in the Library, or where they are referred to. I would like the Minister to do what I thought he would do when he responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South, which is to say, “Well, five years has been put forward for X reasons and 10 years was seen as too long”—or something like that—“and these were the people who argued for each.”
On balance, I agree, that some such things are at the end of the day political decisions, but we did not get that sort of response. I would still like an explanation for the decision of five years. I do not think that is in the impact assessment, on which, likewise—I have raised this with the Minister on the Floor of the House—there is confusion on the number of claims and the potential of those claims. The figures vary from 900 to 1,000, but there is no breakdown at all of whether those claims are from civilians or from members of the armed forces making claims against the MOD.
The other thing that concerns me is the presumption not to prosecute. I know of no other system where the presumption is written into a Bill to state, before anything is done, that someone will not be prosecuted. Again, my fear about that is that it will be seen as interfering with process. I am sure some people in Committee are old enough to remember the time before the Crown Prosecution Service, many years ago—this is the reason why we had that in this country—when police investigated and did the prosecution as well. Anyone who wants to know the reasons why that system failed—for example, in the Horizon case to which I referred earlier—should read last week’s excellent report of the Justice Committee, which criticised the arrangement whereby someone was both investigator and prosecutor.
The presumption in this Bill is worse than that, because we are saying, “We will presume that we are not going to prosecute.” I know that Ministers have said, “This does not mean that cases will not be prosecuted”, and I accept that, but the decision on whether a case should be prosecuted should be down to an independent judicial process; it should not be in the hands of the Attorney General, a Minister or anyone else to decide whether a case goes forward.
My right hon. Friend has touched on this before. The issue is not prosecutions but the actual investigations. The question to ask is, how do we square proper and prompt investigations, where there is justice at the end, with this limitation on prosecution? Do the Government have this the wrong way around?
I agree with Judge Blackett and General Nick Parker. What the Government have done is looked at the prosecution end of it, rather than at the investigation end of it. As I have said, Blackett referred to it as looking through the wrong end of a telescope. We all know what happened when we were kids—we looked through telescopes, which were quite good for seeing things that were far away. It is as though somehow we would not pick up on the detail of what can be seen. With the Bill, however, we can see the detail.
As I have just outlined, what is needed is proper investigation. No one is suggesting shortcuts in investigations. We need a proper system that has judicial oversight, which will ensure that it is fair on all sides, and that it is efficient. The next bit of it is prosecution, which has to be independent of Government. I have never seen it written into a Bill that, before there is an investigation, there is a presumption in law that there will be no prosecution. How would we do that? What is the purpose of investigating a case and going through details if, from the outset, there is a presumption that it will not be prosecuted? That is very difficult. It would be like you, Mr Stringer, burgling somebody’s house—I am not suggesting for one minute that you would do that. The authorities would then say, “We are going to investigate you, but the presumption”—not the decision, because I accept that you could still get prosecuted—“is that you are innocent and that you haven’t done it.” That is just nonsense and will not stand up. It will end up with judicial reviews, so we will not be free from the ambulance-chasing lawyers or the legal aid system, because if they can see that there is a buck to be made in that way, they will do it.
Likewise, on international comparisons, it comes down to the point that the Judge Advocate General made in his excellent letter to the Defence Secretary, to which I referred last week in evidence: he was not consulted on the Bill. When these cases go to the International Criminal Court for investigation, it will say, “Wait a minute. At the outset you had a presumption that you were not going to prosecute in these cases.” If we had a situation in which a case went forward, there would be a presumption against prosecution and there would be an investigation. If the Attorney General were to decide that the case did not go to prosecution, the International Criminal Court would have a field day. It would say, “Well, wait a minute. You’ve had a presumption against prosecution. You’ve had political interference, with the Attorney General making the final decision about whether a prosecution should take place.” I do not think that is compatible with our treaty obligations to the ICC.
I know that reference is often made to the Human Rights Act 1998 and that there is a tendency—not with you, Mr Stringer, because I know you are an expert on European matters—to think that somehow it is something to do with the European Union. It has nothing at all to do with the EU. It has a proud history, and we should be proud to have helped develop the idea of human rights after the second world war in order to ensure that we have the highest standards. My fear is that we will end up with servicemen and women before the International Criminal Court. I am sorry, but I do not want to see that. What I want to see is their being dealt with in our judicial legal system, which will end up with their getting better justice. It will be very difficult to explain to the public why servicemen and women end up in the International Criminal Court. If that happens, the next step is that we withdraw from the International Criminal Court and everything else. If we do that, it will affect our reputation in the world as a country that wants to uphold the rule of law and to tell China and other nations, “Look, these are the basic standards that you should adhere to.” It will be a godsend to them.
There are serious issues to do with clause 1, which I do not think the Minister has addressed. If we end up with fairness and justice for our servicemen and women but we do not have an efficient system, that needs to be changed. I repeat to the Minister that the Bill can be changed on Report in this place, and I am happy to work on the investigation issues with him. If new clauses to that effect were not perfectly written according to the Ministry of Defence, I would be quite happy to work on getting a form of words that we could all accept. I am a mild-mannered individual, as many people know, and I would quite happily let the Government table them and claim the credit. I am not looking for plaudits. What I want above everything is a good Bill, and the Bill as it stands is not a good one.
I thank my right hon. Friend for a rather long, in-depth speech. I am sure that I will repeat some of the points that he raised, but I want to focus particularly on the measures that apply to events that occurred more than five years ago. The starting point for covering that time period is the date that the alleged conduct occurred. When an alleged offence continued over more than one day, the starting point for the five-year time period would be the last day on which the alleged conduct occurred. I believe that that needs a bit more probing and explanation.
As we know, the Defence Committee report “Protecting veterans by a Statute of Limitations” was supported on the presumption against prosecution for allegations that were more than 10 years old. I was extremely concerned that the proposals would not cover soldiers who had served in Northern Ireland through the troubles. It is said that the Ministry of Defence should ensure that sufficient resources are made available for educating the armed forces more regularly about their legal obligations.
Far be it from me to be personal, but when the Minister replies, I would like him to give further explanation of why he moved from the 10-year period agreed by the Defence Committee to the five-year period. The real issue here, as my hon. Friend said—sorry, my right hon. Friend; he is a member of the Privy Council and I should acknowledge that—is not so much the prosecution but the investigation. All soldiers who make the great commitment to serve our country in the armed forces need a prompt, fair, efficient and effective investigation before we reach prosecution.
I would like to cite the example of how alleged crimes in Iraq were investigated and how we have arrived at the current position. As many of us know, UK military operations in Iraq lasted from the start of the invasion on
In March 2010, the MOD established the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, to ensure that credible claims were properly investigated. The IHAT received a total of around 3,400 allegations of unlawful killings and ill treatment between 2010 and 2017—a period of seven years. However, in February 2017, the Defence Committee published its IHAT inquiry report, which notably criticised the team for alleged inefficiency and lack of professionalism. It called on the MOD to close it down and to provide financial and other support to UK servicemen under investigation. On the same day as the release of the inquiry’s report, the Defence Secretary announced the closure of the IHAT, ahead of the original schedule, citing IHAT’s own forecasts that the team’s caseload was expected to reduce to about 20 investigations by the summer of 2017. The IHAT was permanently shut down on
The MOD said that military operations in Iraq have resulted in nearly 1,000 compensation claims for unlawful detention, personal injury and death, and about 1,400 judicial review claims, seeking investigations and compensation for alleged human rights violations. An investigation by the BBC “Panorama” programme and The Sunday Times found that the UK Government and the armed forces might have covered up the killing of civilians by British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The MOD has strongly rejected the allegations of cover-ups. I bring that up because it was a MOD investigation into a conflict that lasted eight years, and then seven years into that investigation it was shut down because of what it was doing.
The real problem we have is that the Bill does not stop the cycle of investigations. Restrictions apply solely to prosecutions. If we were to ask most people who have been investigated time and again, they would say it is the investigation that has caused the problems. Unless we resolve that, the Bill does not ensure that allegations are properly investigated and resolved—this is the point, Mr Stringer—within a reasonable period. As I have said, service personnel would benefit from a focus on prompt and thorough investigations, rather than simply a limitation on prosecutions. That is why the amendments are so important. The investigations have to be judge led.
I agree that we have to resolve concerns about uncertainty and the delay for soldiers and litigants. On the other side, there are the victims. Some claims may have to go over five years for sound reasons. Injury may become problematic only after five years of post-traumatic stress disorder. Luckily, we live in a world where we have a better understanding of mental health and we are far more sympathetic to problems. In another life—14 years ago—I worked for Lord Touhig, who was involved when he was a Defence Minister with the shot-at-dawns. I am very proud that the last Labour Government granted them a pardon. I hope we never see a return to the bad old days when people were shot for alleged cowardice, when really they were suffering from terrible mental health problems.
That is what we have to guide ourselves with in this Bill. We face a mental health crisis. I was encouraged earlier when I moved the motion about UAVs, as the Minister accepted there was an issue of post-traumatic stress disorder and the need for more research. I know he has worked very hard in that area and I look forward to some of the outcomes of the work he is doing. I pay tribute to him for his work on that.
We have to accept that many of these claims will take longer. In some of these cases, it may take a long time for evidence to be gathered and to come to light, especially when we are dealing with complicated areas of law or complicated parts of operations in theatre. The Minister should look again at the five-year rule and make it 10 years, but it is more important that, alongside that, we look at how the investigations are conducted.
We should consider any time limit on prosecutions to be an intolerable barrier to justice. It is notable that the proposed five-year period halves the time period for prosecutions from the proposal of 10 years consulted on by the Ministry of Defence last year. A five-year limit makes it likely that the relevant overseas operation will still be in progress—I used the example of Iraq and Afghanistan at the beginning of my speech. That means investigations may have to be limited to while we are active in hostilities. That, again, is a barrier to justice.
The Judge Advocate General of the armed forces, Jeff Blackett, warned the Defence Secretary that this provision
“would encourage an accused person to frustrate the progress of investigation past the five-year point to engage a high bar for prosecution”.
When the Minister responds, I hope that he can lay out some guidelines on how we can stop anybody frustrating justice in that way.
I alluded earlier to our good friend Lord Touhig, who advised me to always be careful of taking interventions, because they can ruin the end of your speech. I feel that that has happened here.
It is important to remember that the overwhelming majority of repeat investigations or delayed prosecutions in recent years have, as my right hon. Friend said, been the direct result of failures by the MOD itself. It is an issue within the MOD that needs to be resolved—whether it is a cultural issue or a rules-based issue, it needs to be resolved. I agree with what the Minister is trying to do because there are too many veterans, ex-servicemen and women, who are living in fear of repeat investigations. If they are living in fear of that, we must ask why these investigations are repeated over and over again, causing not only stress to their mental health but putting intolerable strain on their families.
Rather than measures that tackle the real reason behind the investigations that delay prosecutions, the Bill proposes unprecedented legal protections that will create a legal regime that mandates impunity for serious offences and, above all, inequality in law for the victims of abuse in our forces. Severely restricting the application of criminal law for certain categories of people accused of having committed offences including international crimes would violate the principle of equal application of the law, which is what our legal system is based on.
A multitude of sources suggest that crimes were committed on a large scale in Afghanistan and Iraq. That happened at least partly due to systemic issues—for instance, in 2013, in R. v. the Secretary of State for Defence, the UK High Court held that
“there might have been systemic abuses and that such abuses may have been attributable to a lack of appropriate training.”
If the problem is appropriate training, it is not a legislative solution that we need but a systemic solution from within the Ministry of Defence. In its 2018 report, the Ministry of Defence working group on systemic issues said that it considered:
“there was sufficient evidence to conclude that assaults in detention had occurred, and may have been systemic.”
International law imposes certain obligations on the UK, including the obligation not to put in place a legal framework that severely restricts or makes impossible the investigation and prosecution of serious crimes under international law committed in armed conflict, irrespective of where those crimes were committed. The proposed legislation severely limits the possibility of opening a full investigation in respect of Iraq or Afghanistan. Any measure that significantly limits the possibility of prosecuting international crimes, whether referred to as a statute of limitations or a statute of presumption against prosecution, risks undermining the UK’s hard-won role as a champion of the international rule of law and hence its ability to advance its agenda.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West made the point, in respect of the lack of training, that the real pressure is not on the chain of command but on the men and women in the frontline. Does my hon. Friend agree that, unfortunately, it is they who find themselves in these cases rather than those higher up in the chain of command who have equal responsibility for some of the actions?
I agree; it is often ordinary squaddies or ratings who find themselves in these circumstances simply because they were following orders. If we are talking about training, we do live in a different world, a modern world. I have already spoken about our shot-at-dawn campaign, which my right hon. Friend is involved in. We have to realise that our modern armed forces are constantly evolving in a changing world, and our training should reflect that, whether it is for an ordinary rating or top brass in the armed forces. It is important that we focus on training. The Government have the numbers and they will pass the Bill, but the way to change the culture of ongoing prosecutions is to start with the training of our troops, whether in command or on the front line.
To return to the point I was making, the code for Crown prosecutors already has ample criteria to provide guidance on whether prosecution should take place. This includes an evidential stage, followed by a public interest stage. The evidential stage concerns an independent prosecutor’s assessment of whether there is a realistic prospect of conviction. The public interest stage guidance involves considerations such as the seriousness of the alleged offence, the level of capability of the offender, the circumstances of and the harm caused to the victim, the suspect’s age and maturity at the time of the offence, the impact of the offending on the community, whether prosecution is a proportionate response and whether sources of information require protecting.
The Ministry of Defence and the Government more broadly should ensure that adequate legal safeguards are in place for service personnel and veterans, including access to legal counsel, and other internationally recognised due process and fair trial standards. The legal protection of current and former service personnel is best served by a framework that facilitates prompt—this is the third time I have said this—and adequate investigation, which would clear anyone wrongly suspected of having committed the crime without risk of undue reinvestigation and at the same time ensure accountability for those guilty of crimes.
No one is above the law. If crimes are committed, they should be prosecuted and the full weight of the law should come down on those responsible. Many investigations—this is the key point about the clause—have been so weak and ineffective that they resulted in judicial findings which led to the need for them to be reopened or restarted, or for more robust procedures to be put in place. It is not appropriate to impose a limit for bringing claims in relation to personal injury or death where people are seeking damages in respect of sorrowful events that took place outside the UK; to do so breaches the rights of the victims.
The Government have sought to claim that these reforms are needed to stop legal cases relating to UK actions where that is not appropriate, but the Bill’s definition of overseas operations, to which these provisions apply, is too broad, as it covers
“peacekeeping operations and operations dealing with terrorism, civil unrest or serious public disorder, during the course of which members of Her Majesty’s forces come under attack or face the threat of attack or violent resistance.”
The Minister referred to my amendment dealing with that point. It is striking that the Bill’s presumption against prosecutions would appear to apply to any and all operations that deal in terrorism. The provision would cover a wide range of covert activates that are subject to little or no public or parliamentary scrutiny, and of which MPs may have no knowledge at all. This could include so-called training SIS operations carried out with a range of foreign security forces, or indeed operations of the kind that UK became involved in during the war on terror, when Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee found the UK maintained a corporate policy of facilitating rendition of detainees and was involved in hundreds of cases of torture and mistreatment.
In our evidence session, Clive Baldwin of Human Rights Watch said that
“we are seeing a breakdown in what is the beginning and the end of an armed conflict, what is the battlefield and what decisions are made in which country—you mentioned drones, but there are other decisions made within a country, and cyber-warfare is coming. The artificial distinction of an overseas operation with a clear beginning, a clear theatre and a clear end is one that is very much breaking down. The distinction of when an armed conflict begins and ends is becoming murkier in many ways, especially non-international armed conflict. The idea of having one rule for overseas operations and one for domestic operations will be increasingly artificial, and that lack of clarity about the real application of such situations and such laws will be another danger of this Bill.”––[Official Report, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Public Bill Committee,
I support my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham in his amendments and I hope that the Minister will think on what has been said this afternoon, and answer some of the questions that we have put to him.
I am delighted to answer some of the questions that have been laid out. I have spoken at length about the “five to 10 years” issue in dealing with previous amendments, but I will look to answer some of the questions raised and then speak to clause 1 in general.
We ask a huge amount of our service police. Investigations on overseas operations are inherently dangerous, and the risk of gathering evidence on operations must always be balanced with the risk to the lives of our investigators. To suggest that the service police pursue unmeritorious or vexatious investigations in those circumstances is to do a huge injustice to those brave men and women who do this dangerous work, and we do not.
To understand new clause 6, it is necessary to go through it line by line. Proposed new subsection (1) seeks to apply the clause to,
“any investigation by a police force into alleged conduct as described in subsection 3 of section 1.”
Clause 1(3) applies—
Clause 1(3) applies where,
“the alleged conduct took place (outside the British Islands)”, at a time when the person was “subject to service law” under the Armed Forces Act 2006, and “deployed on overseas operations.” There is no further limit on the remaining provisions of the proposed new clause, which means they must therefore apply to all investigations on overseas operations committed by service personnel. For context, there were in the region of 3,000 service police investigations in Iraq and 1,000 in Afghanistan. The majority of those will have been committed by persons subject to service law. It is not considered feasible for such numbers of investigations to be brought in front of a judge, and to do so would undoubtedly add further delays to the process.
Proposed new subsection (2) states:
“The police force investigating the conduct must place their preliminary findings before an allocated judge advocate as soon as possible, but no later than 6 months after the alleged offence was brought to their attention.”
The service police are independent. That independence is enshrined in law in section 115A of the Armed Forces Act 2006. It is common practice for them to consult prosecutors in the course of an investigation and for that discourse to shape an investigation, but this is discourse, not direction. Any obligation on the service police to police their investigation before a person who has control over the final determination of that matter seriously compromises the independence and is therefore contrary to section 115A.
New clause 6 states that the allocated judge advocate may order an investigation to cease should it be determined,
“that no serious, permanent or lasting psychological or physical injury has been caused”— presumably by the alleged conduct. Again, it would be hard to determine whether that was the case without investigation, a matter complicated by being on overseas operations. Proposed new subsection (3)(b) gives the judge advocate the power to order that an investigation should cease if it is determined,
“that the evidence is of a tenuous character because of weakness or vagueness or because of inconsistencies with other evidence, and that it is not in the interests of justice to continue an investigation”.
That proposed new paragraph is equally problematic; only in the most clear-cut cases can the police produce evidence entirely without some area of weakness or vagueness. Difficult operational investigations are particularly prone to those problems, but the relationship with the prosecutor will allow them to be explored and the progression of the investigation adapted accordingly. Furthermore, inconsistency with other evidence is a factor in all investigations and is what the trial process is created to explore. For a judge advocate to be placed into such a process, rather than relying on the relationship between police and prosecutor, risks adding delay to the investigation, and for a judge to order the cessation of an investigation risks cutting it short where evidence has not yet been gathered due to the complex nature of operational inquiries.
Finally, proposed new subsection (3)(c) seeks to give the judge advocate the power to direct the timetable and extent of further investigation if it is determined that there is merit in the complaint. However, the clause does not specify whether the judge advocate would have continued oversight, or some ability to enforce the timetable and direction. Again, that would place an additional burden on police who, in an operational theatre, responding to operational events, would now have an added layer of bureaucracy placed on them by someone who is not deployed and cannot possibly understand the unique pressures experienced by the deployed police officer. That would remove the discretion that all police officers must have to carry out prompt, independent and effective investigations, and hamper their decision making. That is not the same as the police relationship with the prosecutor, and here I return to my point about discourse versus direction. Discourse allows the police to retain the discretion so vital to acting in response to events; direction fetters their decision making.
The proposed clause is based on the false premise that police carry out unmeritorious or vexatious investigations. It would undermine the relationship between the police and prosecutors and fetter the police in the conduct of investigations in difficult circumstances. It would place an additional and unnecessary cog in a system that does not need it.
New clause 7 fails to take account of the processes involved in investigations. It fails to make clear the difference between an investigation and a reinvestigation and it fails to understand the processes involved in gathering evidence. The proposed clause applies where a person has been acquitted of an offence relating to conduct on overseas operations. It is assumed that this envisages a situation in which a person is acquitted at court martial, but it should be noted that it could also apply to a matter that is heard at a summary hearing in front of a commanding officer, following on from an investigation that did not involve the police. It also applies where a determination has been made by a judge advocate that an investigation into an offence should cease, which, as I have already stated, risks prematurely cutting short an investigation whose progress is impacted by its being an operational investigation.
The new clause proposes that there be no further investigation into the alleged conduct unless compelling new evidence becomes available and an allocated judge advocate determines that the totality of the evidence against the accused is sufficiently strong that there is a real possibility that it would support a conviction. I will take this step by step.
An investigation is a hard thing to define in law. It starts when inquiries begin, and its purpose is to determine whether what little information there is to start with is credible, and to gather more evidence in support of that. The process of finding out whether evidence is compelling is called an “investigation”. It is hard to see how, people having been told to cease an investigation, no further investigation—whether new or a continuation of the earlier investigation—can be commenced unless some form of compelling new evidence becomes available. The only way the police can determine whether the new evidence is compelling is by carrying out the investigation that they are not allowed to carry out. This becomes a circular issue.
Additionally, no further investigation into the alleged conduct may be carried out unless the allocated judge advocate determines that the totality of the evidence against an accused, which presumably has had to come from some sort of investigation that the police are not allowed to conduct, is sufficiently strong that there is a real possibility that it would support a conviction.
Not at this stage.
Where a person has been acquitted and new evidence comes to light, it would be necessary for there to be a further investigation before a prosecutor could determine whether a new prosecution could and should be brought. That is not a decision for the police; it is a decision for the prosecutor. To prevent the investigation would prevent a prosecutor from having the information that they need to make that determination.
Unfortunately, new clause 7 is not clear enough to allow a real debate on what it is seeking to achieve. The only way the police can determine whether new information is “compelling” or “sufficiently strong” to “support a conviction” is to carry out an investigation. A thorough investigation is important. As I said earlier, it can serve to exculpate, which is a good thing for the reputation of our armed forces, as well as to incriminate. The Bill should not, and does not, seek to fetter the police from carrying out investigations. It seeks to ensure that prosecutors are in a position to make prosecutorial decisions based on information that can be gleaned only through thorough investigations.
With the discourse between prosecutor and investigator, a balance must be struck between further investigation and the realistic prospect of conviction, and this includes the measures in the Bill that the prosecutor must take account of.
Not at this stage.
However, this does not need further clauses that seek to fetter that discourse. It needs the lightest touch, which is achieved through the balanced and established relationship between police and prosecutor.
Obviously, the Minister is probably more familiar with the Bill than I am. I just getting a little bit lost on his comments here. Is he saying that the only time that new evidence comes to light is through an investigation? That is just not the case. Sometimes evidence appears when there is not an ongoing investigation. Also, is he saying that, in that case, when new evidence comes to light, an investigation should not happen? For my benefit and perhaps that of other members of the Committee who are not as familiar with the Bill as he is, could he please explain where in the Bill there is a limit on reinvestigation at this moment?
I am happy to address the point about reinvestigation, because there are no circumstances in which anybody could arrive at the Ministry of Defence with an allegation of criminality or whatever it might be and we could not investigate it. There is a difference between investigations and where those investigations start impacting the lives of veterans, which is what the Bill seeks to deal with and which is why we have drawn the line where we have. We are not saying that new evidence comes only from investigation, but, as I have outlined, new clause 7 introduces an element of oversight that is simply not practicable to what we are trying to do. I have outlined that the 3,500 cases in Iraq and 1,000 in Afghanistan, and it is not practicable to do that and to ensure there is a speedy resolution, that evidence is preserved, that if people have done wrong we can prosecute them in a timely manner and so on. I am happy to have a further conversation with the hon. Lady about that later.
In summing up the clause stand part debate, the Government do not consider the armed forces to be above the law. Whenever they embark on operations overseas, our armed forces must abide by the criminal law of England and Wales, as well as international humanitarian law, including as set out in the Geneva convention. Our personnel serve with great dignity, courage and commitment. The vast majority undertake the difficult and often dangerous tasks we ask of them in accordance with domestic and international law. However, in the circumstances where our service personnel fall short of the high standards of personal behaviour and conduct that is required and expected of them, it is vital they are held to account. That is one of the reasons we are not proposing an amnesty or a statute of limitations for service personnel and veterans as part of the measures. Of course, alleged misconduct by service personnel is dealt with most effectively if individuals are investigated and, where appropriate, subject to disciplinary or criminal proceedings at the time of the conduct. However, that is not always possible in the circumstances of overseas operations.
I fully appreciate what the Minister says about being bound by criminal law in England and Wales. However, having gone through the process himself, is he confident that when someone is recruited into the armed forces, they are fully aware of their legal obligations and that the training meets those needs?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that pertinent question. Extensive efforts have gone down over the years to make sure our people understand the rules within which they should operate. There clearly have been challenges in some of the training regarding detentions and so on, as has been found out through various court cases. I have always talked, on Second Reading and even before the legislation came to the House, about how the it is one of a series of measures. One such measure is about investigatory standards, another is about education and how individuals’ lives are affected, because it is not in anybody’s interests for us to do the legislation and for people not to understand. I am more than happy to share with the hon. Gentleman how much work we have done in that space.
I will not. Repeat investigations of alleged historical offences or the emergence of new allegations of criminal offences relating to operations many years ago can make the delivery of timely justice extremely difficult. It can also leave our service personnel with the stress and mental strain of the threat of potential prosecution hanging over them for far too long. The measures in part 1 of the Bill are key to providing reassurance to our service personnel and veterans about the threat of repeated criminal investigations and potential prosecution for alleged offences occurring many years ago on overseas operations. The purpose and effect of clause 1 is to set the conditions for when the measures in clause 2 and 3 must be applied by a prosecutor in deciding whether to prosecute a criminal case or to continue with the proceedings in a case. It should be noted with reference to clause 1(2) that the measures do not affect the prosecutor’s decision as to whether there is sufficient evidence to justify prosecution. The first stage of the prosecutorial test will therefore remain unchanged. Clause 1 therefore details to whom and in what circumstances the measures will apply.
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. When we consider his summing up, critically with reference to new clause 7(2)(a), does he not recognise that some of the evidence given by Judge Becket in response to his hon Friend the Member for Wrexham creates an ambiguity in terms of our partners in military activity? For example, Judge Becket referred to the murder of six Royal Military Police in Iraq and noted that if new evidence was brought forward, and the Government of Iraq had the same legislation, there is every possibility that the people responsible would not be prosecuted.
I assume that the hon. Gentleman is talking about Judge Blackett, who is the Judge Advocate General. He made some keen points. I have met Judge Blackett and we have tried to incorporate his work in the Bill, where appropriate. The idea that new evidence is presented and we do not prosecute is simply not the case. With reference to the six individuals killed at Majar al-Kabir in 2003, if new evidence is presented in that case, we would expect the Iraqis to prosecute. If new evidence emerges in cases against servicemen and women, they can still be prosecuted beyond these timelines. The legislation is simply bringing integrity and rigour to the process.
No, I am going to make some progress.
Under the Bill, the first condition establishes that the measures will only apply to members of the armed forces, both regulars and reserves, and to members of British overseas territory forces operating as part of UK forces when deployed on operations outside the British Islands, as defined in clause 7. Although we do deploy other Crown servants and contractors on overseas operations, those individuals are not deployed on front-line military operations and are not ordinarily exposed to the same risks and dangers as service personnel. It is not therefore appropriate to extend the protection provided by the measures in part 1 for our service personnel and veterans to other Crown servants or contractors.
The first condition in the legislation also requires that the alleged conduct occurred while the person was deployed on an overseas operation during which personnel came under attack or faced the threat of attack or violent resistance. Operations conducted outside the UK are vastly different from those conducted inside the UK. Within the UK, the military only ever operate in support of the civil authorities. With the exception of Operation Banner, which was an absolutely unique circumstance, UK operations rarely, if ever, require our personnel to operate in the same sort of hostile, high-threat environments they face on overseas operations. Excluding Northern Ireland, there are no outstanding historical allegations relating to operations in the UK.
Be assured that we have not forgotten our Northern Ireland veterans. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be bringing forward separate legislation to address the legacy of the past in a manner that focuses on reconciliation, delivers for victims and ends the cycle of re-investigations into the troubles in Northern Ireland, which has failed victims and veterans alike. That will deliver on our commitment to Northern Ireland veterans.
The second condition for the measures to apply is that the alleged offence must have occurred over five years ago, with the start date being the date of the offence. Where an alleged offence occurred over a period of days, the start date will be the last day of that period. It is vital that investigations into historical allegations are brought to resolution without undue delay. To provide greater assurance to our brave servicemen and women, we consider five years to be the most appropriate start point for the presumption.
Just before I collect the voices of Members as they vote, if the clause is voted for, it means that the first clause is agreed to and then becomes part of the Bill to report to the House. The other new clauses and amendments that were grouped with it will be voted on when they are reached. I hope that is clear.