Clause 2 - Presumption against prosecution

Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 14th October 2020.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 1—Ability to conduct a fair trial—

“The principle referred to in section 1(1) is that a relevant prosecutor making a decision to which that section applies may determine that proceedings should be brought against the person for the offence, or, as the case may be, that the proceedings against the person for the offence should be continued, only if the prosecutor has reasonable grounds for believing that the fair trial of the person has not been materially prejudiced by the time elapsed since the alleged conduct took place.”

This new clause replaces the presumption against prosecution with a requirement on a prosecutor deciding whether to bring or continue a prosecution to consider whether the passage of time has materially prejudiced the prospective defendant’s chance of a fair trial.

Both clause 2 and new clause 1 can be debated. We will not vote on new clause 1 until the end of the Bill when the new clauses are considered. At the end of this debate, I will collect voices for a vote on clause 2. The Minister has moved clause 2 formally. If there is any debate, he can respond. The new clauses will be moved formally when we get to them, but they can be debated now.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Clause 2 is quite an important part of the Bill. I am sorry that the Minister did not allow me to ask him about his investigation point, because it has an impact on this clause. He said that there is no similar system of judicial oversight for investigations, but I have to say that there is. For example, the police will often refer cases to the Crown Prosecution Service prior to the conclusion of an investigation for advice on whether more information is needed to meet the threshold for a prosecution. That is one of the points that I was going to make if he had allowed me to intervene. Whatever his civil servants have written to him, I suggest that they look at that comparison and what that would have done.

It is interesting that the Minister said that he met the Judge Advocate General and tried to incorporate things. I would like to know what in the Bill was changed after his meeting with Judge Blackett. I cannot see anything, but if the Minister wants to give us that, either now or later, that would be fine.

The presumption in clause 2 is for it to be exceptional for a prosecutor to determine that proceedings should be brought in relation to an offence committed by members of the armed forces when deployed on operations abroad. On that presumption against prosecution, I think we will have real problems, as we have referred to already, with regard to our international standing. I ask for your guidance, Mr Stringer: am I allowed to speak to new clause 1, even though it is not being moved?

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 3:30 pm, 14th October 2020

New clause 1 is before us for debate. The Shadow Minister may or may not wish to press it when we get to the new clauses, but it is before us for debate now.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

New clause 1 states:

“The principle referred to in section 1(1) is that a relevant prosecutor makes a decision to which that section applies may determine that proceedings should be brought against the person for the offence or, as the case may be, that the proceedings against the person for the offence should be continued, only if the prosecutor has reasonable grounds for believing that the fair trial of the person has not been materially prejudiced by the time elapsed since the alleged conduct took place.”

We have already discussed this, but if a material time difference were to prevent someone from getting a fair trial, I do not think that anyone would deem it fair to prosecute them for a crime. That has been an issue in civil law. For instance, certain historical sexual abuse cases have been very difficult to determine. There is a balance between the case for the prosecution to, quite rightly, get justice for the victim, and for the accused to receive a fair trial given the lapse in time. The new clause makes a fair suggestion.

In the case of Major Campbell, the circumstances were very difficult. The differences between service justice and civilian life include the unique circumstances in which individuals operate and, as I have said, the fact that they serve overseas, where evidence and witnesses must be gathered. We must ensure that the accused gets a fair trial. I want this Bill to make the process fairer and more just for accused individuals in those unique circumstances. I keep coming back to that point: the circumstances are unique and very different.

I support new clause 1. I accept that it might not be expertly drafted, but if the Minister is sympathetic towards it, I urge him to at least ask a civil servant to redraft it so that it can be brought back as a Government amendment, or to suggest another way in which the proposal can be brought into effect. Judging by his attitude, I doubt he will do that for any of the proposed amendments.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I am not bad, actually. I am just trying to be helpful and to improve the Bill, but the Minister seems determined to push it through unamended. He might not like it, but this is the purpose of Parliament: it is about scrutinising legislation. I have tabled amendments that I do not necessarily agree with, but I have done so because we need to demonstrate to the public that all opinions have been aired in Committee. That is an important part of our democracy. Even with a Government majority of 80, a Minister cannot simply determine that their proposals go through on the nod. Likewise, just because something comes out of his lips, that does not necessarily make it right. Perhaps I can give the Minister some advice: he might be in a stronger position if he was prepared to stand up and argue, in a friendly way, some of the points made in the Bill. All he seems to be doing, however, is reading out a pre-prepared civil service brief. This is the first time I have seen that done in a Bill Committee.

On the presumption against prosecution, we have got things the wrong way around. As Judge Blackett said, by looking at prosecutions we are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. I think there are ways in which we can ensure that people do not have to face lengthy reinvestigations or an inordinately long wait before being taken trial, and, if they meet the threshold for prosecution, that they are not disadvantaged by the passage of time. It is worth exploring those issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South asks, through the new clause, a reasonable question about time limits. If this is not the way to do it, what is?

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Shadow Minister (Defence) (Armed Forces and Defence Procurement), Shadow Minister (Defence)

I rise to support new clause 1. I have said many times throughout this process that the Opposition will work constructively with the Government to get the Bill right, to protect armed forces personnel and their families. We believe that the intent of the Bill is well placed, but it has been poorly executed to achieve what Members on both sides of the House want—an end to vexatious claims that are misplaced, that are drawn out for years longer than they should be, and that place our troops and their families under incredible amounts of stress and pressure that they simply should not have to expect.

Our world-class personnel and their families deserve so much better. That is why it is so important that we get the Bill right. However, the presumption against prosecution does not resolve the issue that we all recognise. It does not afford our armed forces personnel the protection that they deserve. That is why, where the Opposition see an opportunity to improve the Bill, we will seek to highlight it. It is why we have tabled new clause 1, which we believe is fair. Crucially, it tackles the key issues of bringing to an end many of the vexatious claims against our armed services personnel—we want to make that commonplace—and of ensuring that decisions to prosecute are brought to a swifter conclusion. For that to happen, clause 2 in part 1 of the Bill must be removed and replaced by a new clause that replaces the presumption against prosecution with a requirement for a prosecutor who is deciding whether to bring or to continue a prosecution to consider whether the passage of time has materially prejudiced the prospective defendant’s chance of a fair trial.

The principle of a fair trial and consideration of the length of time that has passed during an investigation of our armed forces personnel is important for two reasons. First, it focuses on fairness. It ensures that our world-renowned legal system’s reputation remains intact. It does not undermine our international reputation and avoids the potential repercussions of our armed forces personnel being dragged to The Hague for violating international law. Secondly, it tackles the issue of lengthy investigations, which, sadly, some of our armed forces personnel have experienced and still are experiencing. More specifically, it requires the prosecutor to consider whether the passage of time in such investigations has materially prejudiced the chance of a fair trial for our armed forces service personnel and veterans.

It is not just the Opposition who have identified the flaws in clause 2 and where it could be improved. The International Committee of the Red Cross has raised these concerns, submitting them in written evidence. For context, and for those who are not aware, the ICRC is an impartial, neutral and independent organisation whose mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict and others in situations of violence and to provide them with assistance. The ICRC is also the origin of the Geneva conventions, an international agreement of which our country is a proud original signatory.

In its evidence, the ICRC acknowledges that there are occasions on which discretion has developed to address cases in which prosecutions are not taken forward. At international level, article 53 of the International Criminal Court statute sets out a procedure to follow if,

“upon investigation, the Prosecutor concludes that there is not a sufficient basis for a prosecution because…A prosecution is not in the interests of justice, taking into account all the circumstances, including the gravity of the crime, the interests of victims and the age or infirmity of the alleged perpetrator, and his or her role in the alleged crime”.

The written evidence goes on to say, however, that the ICC Office of the Prosecutor said that

“only in exceptional circumstances will the Prosecutor of the ICC conclude that an investigation or a prosecution may not serve the interests of justice”.

Finally, under the heading, “The presumption in favour of investigation or prosecution”, the OTP notes:

“Many developments in the last ten or fifteen years point to a consistent trend imposing a duty on States to prosecute crimes of international concern committed within their jurisdiction”.

The written evidence gives rise to a number of considerations. Clause 2 states that there should be exceptional circumstances for a prosecutor to determine whether proceedings should be taken against armed forces personnel. However, as outlined in the ICRC submission, does the prosecution in the interests of justice, including the gravity of the crime, the interests of victims and the age and infirmity of the alleged perpetrator, sound like an exception to the rule of when proceedings should be brought forward? Indeed, it seems more likely to be exceptional for such a case to not be progressed and brought forward. The OTP compounds that point by stating that

“only in exceptional circumstances will the Prosecutor of the ICC conclude that an investigation or a prosecution may not serve the interests of justice.”

Under the Bill as drafted, it will not be exceptional to not prosecute such cases. Indeed, it risks undermining our international reputation and legal obligations, and, as a consequence, risks our armed forces personnel being tried at the International Criminal Court instead of in British courts. That gives rise to the question: why are the Government so intent on taking this risk, undermining our reputation and legal obligations, and leaving our armed forces personnel exposed? Why have the Government included a clause that risks undermining a historic, momentous international convention in which our country played a key role and of which it is an original signatory? That is something that our country and armed forces are proud of, and it is a reason for the high regard in which we are held across the world. Why risk breaching it, particularly when this clause could put our armed forces personnel at greater risk of vexatious claims? The Bill would not protect them, as it intends to do.

Furthermore, according to the evidence submitted by ICRC, the OTP also notes that many developments

“in the last ten or fifteen years point to a consistent trend imposing a duty on States to prosecute crimes of international concern committed within their jurisdiction”.

Why would we wish to deviate from our colleagues and international security partners on such an important issue? What is the Government’s reasoning for this?

That is not the only evidence received by the Committee that underlines the issue of clause 2. During last week’s evidence sessions, we heard from Judge Blackett, the former Judge Advocate General, the most senior military judge in the country, who said:

“I have three concerns about the Bill. One is the presumption against prosecution”.—[Official Report, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Public Bill Committee, 8 October 2020; c. 116-17, Q234.]

He went on to say:

“I do not think that there should be a presumption against prosecution”.––[Official Report, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Public Bill Committee, 8 October 2020; c. 121, Q248.]

Quite simply, if the most senior military judge in the country has clearly outlined that there should not be a presumption against prosecution in the Bill, what more do the Government need to understand that clause 2 should be removed? What advice and evidence have the Government taken to support their approach? Was the Judge Advocate General consulted? If not, why not? In summary, I hope the Government will listen to the points raised, remove clause 2, uphold our international reputation and obligations, and work with us to protect our troops and get this Bill right.

Finally, I ask the Minister to clarify what advice and evidence have the Government taken to support clause 2? Why do the Government wish to deviate from our colleagues and international security partners on such an important issue? What is the Government’s reasoning for this? Why have they included a clause that risks undermining a historic and momentous international convention in which our country played a key role and of which it is a key signatory? Why are the Government so intent on risking undermining our reputation and legal obligations and leaving our armed forces personnel exposed? I hope the Committee will get some answers from the Minister.

Miss Sarah Dines:

I rise to speak briefly to new clause 1. As a new Member, I find the quality of the new clause disappointing. It does a disservice to the intentions of those who tabled it, so I invite them to withdraw it. The wording is far too vague and subjective. It is without guidelines and substance. Its incredible vagueness would make for a very unworkable piece of legislation. I believe in proper scrutiny in Committee, and the quality of the new clause is not good. It is a lawyer’s gift and would be subject to countless legal challenges and much litigation, which is exactly what the Bill is meant to stop.

Photo of Sarah Dines Sarah Dines Conservative, Derbyshire Dales

I am just finishing. I respectfully ask for the new clause to be withdrawn.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence) 3:45 pm, 14th October 2020

I will answer the point about the Judge Advocate General first. He is able to comment on all areas of policy that have a direct impact on his role within the service justice system and the management of the military court system, but the measures in part 1 of the Bill impact on the prosecutorial process. As such, we felt it was more important to focus on engagement with the independent prosecutors, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Service Prosecuting Authority, which were all engaged in the process.

As I have said already, I have met the JAG and have looked at his recommendations, and we continue to look at how we can take forward his suggestions in order to improve the process of service justice. More will come on that in due course.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

The Minister has referred to who he consulted when drawing the Bill. Can he expand on their comments, and is it possible to produce them as evidence for the Committee?

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

We have already published a response to our consultation, which was widely available for everybody to see. We have also published a response that contains a lot of the conversations around this. As I have indicated, we have engaged with a number of different parties and have arrived at the decision that this was a fair and proportionate line to tread in order to achieve the effects that we are trying to achieve.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

I am going to speak to new clause 1, and then I will happily give way.

Our intention with the measures that we have introduced in part 1 of the Bill was to ensure that we could provide the utmost reassurance to our service personnel and veterans in relation to the threat of repeated scrutiny and potential prosecution for alleged offences occurring many years ago on overseas operations. This has meant seeking to have a balance in introducing protective measures that would set a high threshold for a prosecutor to determine that a case should be prosecuted, as well as ensuring that the adverse impact of overseas operations would be given particular weight in favour of the service person or veteran, but which would not act as an amnesty or statute of limitations, would not fetter the prosecutor’s discretion in making a decision to prosecute, and would be compliant with international law. We have achieved that balance in the combination of clauses 2 and 3. We are providing the additional protection that our service personnel and veterans so greatly deserve, while ensuring that, in exceptional circumstances, individuals can still be prosecuted for alleged offences.

New clause 1 would effectively replace the presumption against prosecution with a requirement in clause 1 that the prosecutor should consider only whether the passage of time has materially prejudiced the prospective defendant’s chance of a fair trial when coming to a decision on whether to prosecute. This not only removes the high threshold of the presumption, but seeks to replace it with a consideration—whether the passage of time would prejudice the chance of a fair trial—which is likely to already be considered by the prosecutor when applying the existing public interest test. We have never suggested that service personnel or veterans have been subject to unfair trials. We have sought instead to highlight not only the difficulties, but the adverse impacts on our personnel, of pursuing allegations of historical criminal offences. Justice delayed is often justice denied, for defendants and for victims. I believe that clauses 2 and 3 provide the appropriate balance between victims’ rights and access to justice, and the requirement to provide a fair and deserved level of protection for our service personnel and veterans. Removing the presumption in the way the new clause proposes would simply remove that balance.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister’s flow, but clearly, ensuring that justice and fairness are done is crucial. We heard a number of comments from Judge Blackett on the process. I know the Minister has met Judge Blackett, but was that before or after the legislation was prepared?

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

I did not meet Judge Blackett before the legislation was prepared, for the reasons I have outlined. We thought it far more important to focus on engagement with the independent prosecutors, the Service Prosecuting Authority and the Crown Prosecution Service. Like I said, I have met him and heard what he has to say, and we heard his evidence last week.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons)

Having subsequently met Judge Blackett and heard his evidence, did the Minister make any changes to the legislation as drafted, or does he propose to make any such changes?

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

No, because that would be to pre-empt the judge-led review of how we protect the Department, configure ourselves and develop the capability to deal with lawfare. Judge Blackett gave his view, but in our judgment it was better to engage the independent prosecutors, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Service Prosecuting Authority. That is what we have done—we engaged in a wide public consultation—and I believe that where we have arrived is fair and proportionate.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (PPS to the Westminster Leader)

If the Bill were not legislation relating to the armed forces, it would have been given prior oversight by either the Attorney General for England and Wales, the Attorney General for Northern Ireland or, for Scotland, the Lord Advocate or the Advocate General. Will the Minister tell the Committee why the Judge Advocate General was excluded from that process for this legislation?

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

The Secretary of State wrote to the Judge Advocate General on 14 May 2020 acknowledging that, because of the 100-day election commitment to introduce the Bill, it was not possible for the legal protections team to complete the usual level of stakeholder engagement that we would usually seek to undertake post-public consultation.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

I am answering the hon. Gentleman’s question. However, we welcomed the Judge Advocate General’s interest in the Bill: an offer was made for the project team to engage with him at a convenient time, and I subsequently met him. I respect the hon. Gentleman’s views on who would be consulted if the Bill were drafted in a civilian context, but I am entirely comfortable that the Department spoke to the right people to gauge their views on how we should deal with the current system, which is difficult and ultimately unfair to veterans.

I respect all the views that we heard last week—of course I do—but I am allowed to disagree with them. Having worked on this for seven years, it is possible to hear other people’s views on the matter and disagree with them. The Department has taken a balanced and proportionate view, and indeed, it has incorporated a lot of views from other stakeholders throughout the process.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

I will not give way at the moment, because I have addressed that point a number of times.

Clause 2, which the new clause would replace, sets out the principle of the presumption against prosecution, but it is to be exceptional for a prosecutor to determine that proceedings should be brought for an alleged offence that occurred in operations more than five years ago, as set out in clause 1. We have not sought to define “exceptional”, as we do not think it necessary or possible to provide an exhaustive definition. We intend, however, that the effect of clause 2 will be that when a prosecutor considers whether criminal proceedings should be brought or continued in relevant cases, there will be a presumption against prosecution, and that the threshold for rebutting that presumption will be high.

We also expect that the concept of “exceptional” will develop over time as cases are considered by prosecutors. I reinforce the point in clause 1(2): the presumption against prosecution does not impact on the prosecutor’s assessment as to whether there is sufficient evidence to justify a prosecution. It focuses instead on setting a high threshold for a prosecutor to determine that it is in the public interest to bring or to continue criminal proceedings in respect of offences committed by service personnel on operations more than five years ago.

Although the presumption will not directly impact on investigations, allegations of wrongdoing must, and will, continue to be investigated. We accept that, over time, this is likely to have an indirect impact. As prosecutors become familiar with the presumption, they should be able to advise investigators earlier in the process on whether the higher threshold of the new statutory requirement would be met in a particular case.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

Not at the moment. Although that should therefore help to reduce the likelihood of investigations being reopened without new and compelling evidence, it does not create an absolute bar to investigations or prosecutions, as a statute of limitations or an amnesty would. Rather, the presumption is rebuttal, with the prosecutor retaining the discretion to prosecute where they determine that it would be appropriate to do so. That may include cases in which there is evidence that a serious offence has been committed.

In contrast, an amnesty or a statute of limitations for service personnel would be a breach of our international legal obligations and would pose significant challenges and risks. That includes the risk that, in the absence of a domestic system for the prosecution of international criminal offences, the International Criminal Court would assert its jurisdiction and bring prosecutions against members of the UK armed forces. The presumption against prosecution, however, is consistent with our international legal obligations, as it would not affect the UK’s willingness or ability to investigate or prosecute alleged offences committed by our service personnel.

Finally, the statutory presumption and the measures in clauses 3 and 5 will apply only to proceedings that start after the Bill has become law. Although alleged criminal offences relating to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan occurred more than five years ago, meaning that the presumption could be applied in any relevant prosecutorial decisions, it is likely that any remaining investigations of those allegations will be complete before the Bill becomes law. If any new credible allegations relating to Iraq and Afghanistan should arise, however, they will obviously be subject to investigation and, where appropriate, consideration by a prosecutor. Any decision to prosecute such a case after the Bill has become law must, in accordance with the presumption, be exceptional.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

I thank the Minister for giving way—[Interruption.]

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Mrs Lewell-Buck was intervening on the Minister.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

It was remiss of me not to mention what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. It has been a pleasure all day, and hopefully all week.

Has clause 2 been given approval by the CPS? The Minister mentioned that it does not breach international humanitarian law. Can he explain which organisations and professionals have said that? I give him some gentle advice, which I hope he will take in the way that it is intended: legislation made purely on one’s own views, against the advice of experts and others who know exactly what they are talking about, is not the right way to go. It is playing fast and loose with our armed forces and is going to have serious, unintended consequences.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

On the idea that the Department does anything other than seek the views of experts to bring through this difficult legislation, in evidence the hon. Lady has seen a set of views given by campaign groups, but those are not the only views available. This is difficult legislation that, of course, will be contested, but the idea that we have just come up with some idea after a public consultation lasting many months—[Interruption.]

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.