Clause 12

Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 22nd October 2020.

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Duty to consider derogation from Convention

Amendment proposed (this day): 57, in clause 12, page 8, line 20, at end insert—

“(1A) No order may be made by the Secretary of State under section 14 following consideration under this section unless a draft of the order has been laid before, and approved by, each House of Parliament.”—

This amendment would require significant derogations regarding overseas operations proposed by the Government from the European Convention on Human Rights to be approved by Parliament before being made.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Welcome back to the Chair, Mr Stringer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn spoke this morning about the duty to consider derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights. Clause 12 states:

“After section 14 of the Human Rights Act 1998 insert—

‘14A Duty to consider derogation regarding overseas operations”.

It then details ‘overseas operations’. I have a problem with that for many of the same reasons outlined by my hon. Friend. What do we derogate from, and for what reasons? The Human Rights Act 1998 gets a bad name in the sense that people start foaming at the mouth and think that it has something to do with Brussels and Brexit, but it is nothing of the sort. That is important to remember in view of the rights that it gives us and the signatories to it. The Act covers all 47 states that have signed the European Convention on Human Rights. As my hon. Friend said, this country has a proud history of acting as a champion of human rights under the convention, and was instrumental in the convention’s creation in 1950. It was championed by Winston Churchill, mainly as a result of the issues arising from the second world war. It is also important to note that the people who wrote it were members of the United Kingdom Government, and lawyers as well. That convention contains a fundamental part of British DNA—in fact it goes back to Magna Carta and the 1679 Habeas Corpus Act. We build up laws in this country over time, but the horrors of the second world war prompted us to enshrine basic rights for everyone. As I have said before, the Human Rights Act has been portrayed—as it has in terms of the Bill—as the means for nasty foreigners to be able to sue the Ministry of Defence. But the opposite is true: it is fundamental for members of our armed forces. I have already mentioned how it was used in the Smith case in connection with Snatch Land Rovers.

The Bill, as drafted, asks for derogations from the human rights convention. Such derogations are allowable, but subject to limitations, and an applicant must be clear about what they want. When people start chomping at the bit and foaming at mouth when we talk about the Human Rights Act and the human rights convention, I always say, “Just look at it and see what it does. Can you really disagree with it?” Unfortunately, some people do disagree with it, but article 2, which is the most quoted, relates to the right to life.

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Labour/Co-operative, Islwyn

Would my right hon. Friend accept—

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Order. Please address your remarks to the Chair.

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Labour/Co-operative, Islwyn

In the past, the European Court of Human Rights has been judged as the most effective international human rights court in the world.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

It is, because it sets a standard that I do not think many British people could disagree with. Article 2 enshrines the right to life; I do not think that most people would disagree with that. Article 3 relates to freedom from torture, again I am not sure that anyone would disagree with that. People may say that that is self-evidently accepted these days, but not that long ago in Iraq, one of our closest allies, the United States, did commit acts of torture. I did not see any evidence that UK servicemen and women were involved in that when I was part of the rendition report produced by the Intelligence and Security Committee, but there were occasions when UK servicemen and women, and our intelligence agents, were present. Perhaps we all take it for granted that we should be against torture, but there were such cases in Iraq in living memory.

Article 4 relates to freedom from slavery. Again, a few years ago we may have thought about slavery in terms of historical cases and the transportation of slaves from Africa to America and the West Indies. But today, in all our constituencies, slavery is, sadly, alive and kicking, even in my constituency of North Durham, where we had a case of modern slavery about 12 months ago. It exists in modern society.

Article 7 relates to the right to a fair trial, and that comes to the heart of the Bill.

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

The right hon. Gentleman has talked about articles 2, 3 and 4, and is about to discuss article 7. Is he aware that we cannot derogate from those articles, and nor would we seek to?

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

If the Minister is patient, I am coming on to that.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I know. If he is patient, I have a full description of what we cannot derogate from. If he sits back and just enjoys it, he might learn something as well.

We have already discussed how the Bill is removing veterans and armed forces personnel from section 33 of the Limitation Act 1980, and I believe that that does not allow people access to a fair trial. But we would all agree that the right to a fair trial is a basic right. Article 8Minister, do not worry, I am not going to read out the entire list of articles in the Human Rights Act, but I want to concentrate on those that may come within of the Bill’s remit and may be subject to derogation—relates to respect for family and private life. No one should disagree with article 9—freedom of thought, belief and religion. A normal society should have no problems with such a freedom.

The Minister intervened to point out that any derogations are subject to limitation. That leads on to the important question about why such a derogation is included in clause 12. It has always been accepted that the rights given to us under the Human Rights Act should be considered in law according to their hierarchy in the convention. In terms of the Bill and warfare, people have focused on the idea that somehow that Act and the convention on human rights stop a country like ours, or members of the armed forces, using lethal force.

To come to the issue that the Minister just raised, I should say that, yes, there are some absolutes that cannot be derogated from. For example, article 15(2) of the convention states:

“No derogation from Article 2, except in respect of deaths resulting from lawful acts of war, or from Articles 3, 4 (paragraph 1) and 7 shall be made under this provision.”

That was upheld by the Supreme Court in the Smith case. It held steady—Hilary Meredith mentioned this point—in saying that lawful conduct cannot be questioned in terms of the use of the other ones, which the Minister referred to; this comes on to the rights that are absolute and cannot be impaired in any way. There is article 2, about the protection of the right to life, apart from the qualification that I have just given. Article 3 is about the prohibition of torture—something that the Bill could not derogate from.

I should say to the Minister that I disagree with some of my colleagues who said on Second Reading that the Bill gave carte blanche for torture. I simply said that, no, it does not, as would be clear if they read the Bill. Alas, these days many people hold forth in the Chamber without ever having read the relevant Bill—a bit of a disadvantage, I always think, if someone wants to make a useful contribution.

Article 4 is about the prohibition of slavery and forced labour. We cannot derogate from those issues. Article 7 is about punishment without law. One right that some might think we should be able to derogate from is in article 12—the right to marriage. We could not derogate from any of those rights. My issues with the Bill are not about the headlines that some have grabbed in saying that it gives carte blanche for torture. It does not, because of the limitations on derogations.

I then ask myself why the derogation that we are discussing is needed. All my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn was trying to do—and I asked about this earlier—is establish what we can define about what derogations are actually needed, and why. Is this a way of trying to protect the MOD from civilian claims, as I was saying earlier?

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Labour/Co-operative, Islwyn

Article 15 of the European convention on human rights allows derogation in times of war. The last time this country asked for a derogation was in the wake of 9/11 and the rise of al-Qaeda; there was another time in the ’70s during the troubles in Northern Ireland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that derogation is so important? Even when it was granted in the wake of 9/11, this country had still had to argue the reasons for derogation.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

My hon. Friend obviously must be reading my mind; I was about to come to the Northern Ireland case, which is important in respect of the limitations of derogation and the controls around it. The other thing about when a state wants to derogate from the European convention on human rights is that it first has to inform the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, who should be given an explanation about why. Can the Minister tell us in what circumstances he sees this Bill being used, in terms of the derogation from human rights, particularly when it does not limit lawful combat actions in a conflict situation? The Bill also needs to give the reasons and measures, and how they will operate, and set out why it will not be withholding those rights. It comes back into the tier, as I said, where there are some that cannot be touched and others that can.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn raised the example of a case where derogation was requested by the UK for the detention of terrorists, in relation to affairs in Northern Ireland. In that case, the UK Parliament passed legislation that enabled those accused of terrorism to be held for a period of up to five days when they were suspected of being involved with terrorism, although they were not charged with terrorism or anything connected to that. A temporary order was passed under section 12 of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1984.

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Labour/Co-operative, Islwyn 2:15 pm, 22nd October 2020

I think my right hon. Friend is referring to the case of Lawless v. Ireland, where the European Court of Human Rights said that for it to be a state of emergency the entire population needs to be under threat for it to be possible to derogate from the convention on human rights. That underlines how significant it is to even ask for a derogation from the European Court of Human Rights.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

My hon. Friend is right on the second point, but that was not the first case I referred to. In the first case, legislation that the UK had put forward was challenged as a breach of the convention’s obligations. It is Brogan and others v. the United Kingdom. In that case, the judge ruled that the UK would only be able to apply for a derogation if it declared a state of emergency, pursuant to article 15.1 in the derogation clause of the convention. Under the Human Rights Act, there are good reasons why we are able to derogate, but, justifiably, they have to be damn good reasons. Those derogations were found to be unlawful, which allowed the respondents to claim compensation for unlawful imprisonment.

That demonstrates that these provisions are there for good reasons, but we should not use them loosely. I have not yet heard anything about why they are included in this Bill. Clearly, all the issues around warfare and people using lethal force on the battlefield are covered by the convention. That has been upheld by the Supreme Court.

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Labour/Co-operative, Islwyn

When a Government ask for derogation under article 15, the key words are “exceptional circumstances.” If, and only if, it is granted it is then limited and the Government have to justify that. That is the crux of the problem with the Bill and why we have introduced the amendment. The Bill seems to be going against the spirit of that article. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I do. I do not know why it is in the Bill, without an explanation about why one would want to use it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn said, there are perfectly good reasons why there are derogations in the Human Rights Act, for example in times of emergency. But for this area? I just do not see it, because as I say, lawful combat is covered. Torture and other things are proscribed anyway, so nobody can get derogations for those. For what other purpose would it be in the Bill? That is what I find very difficult to understand, and that is why I have a problem with some of this Bill.

The situation we are in is possibly due to the fact that the Human Rights Act 1998 has been portrayed by a lot of people as this horrible piece of socialist, human rights-hugging legislation brought in by a nasty Labour Government. It was not: all it did was incorporate the European convention on human rights into UK law. Previously, if claimants wanted to raise a case under the ECHR, they had to take that case to Strasbourg. Because of the Human Rights Act, those cases were able to be looked at in UK courts and decided by UK judges, which I think was a lot better than the previous scenario. It made it easier, but that is possibly why the focus and attention has been on human rights cases, or the uses of them.

The other thing about human rights cases, which gets into the mythology around those cases, is that the Human Rights Act is often quoted by lawyers and given as a reason why a case should go forward. It is often just struck out, because those lawyers are sometimes just flying a kite and seeing if they get anywhere, but it is quite a robust piece of legislation. It also gives us a lot of protections: it protects individual citizens, but more importantly, it protects individual servicemen and servicewomen when they are bringing cases against the MOD. That is the problem we have had with some of the optics around this, rather than what the facts themselves are. I have had these discussions with constituents, and when I tell them that the Human Rights Act has nothing to do with the EU and that it was actually Winston Churchill’s invention, they look at me agog.

The point is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn said this morning, these are the standards that we apply when we are arguing the moral case, both in foreign policy and in anything else. These are the things we want people to follow, and if we are just loosely throwing derogations into this Bill, we are going to be quite rightly accused of not holding ourselves to the same high standards, or somehow trying to wriggle out of our basic commitments under the Human Rights Act, which is very difficult for me. As I say, I do not understand why this is in the Bill.

The other issue, which I have raised before and was also raised by Hilary Meredith, is the time limits under the Human Rights Act. There is a one-year limit on Human Rights Act cases, but what we are saying is that there should be a longstop, because they are covered by the Limitation Act 1980. We are arguing for a separation of that, in terms of the six-year longstop, and I think Hilary Meredith said in her evidence to us that it would be interesting to know how that fits with the EHCR and its incorporations. I am quite happy for the Minister to write to me on this topic, but he did say that the Bill complies with the Human Rights Act, and I would like to see the explanation from the lawyers about the implementation of the time limits, because I am not sure whether that is something we would have to run by the secretary-general of the Council of Europe. What we are saying, in effect, is that we are limiting someone’s access to human rights. That is the use of human rights legislation, so I think that is the important point.

The other issue is, as the Minister said, the growth in the areas for these cases. I admit that, in some of the Phil Shiner cases, the Human Rights Act was just flying a kite, basically. Those cases should have been knocked down very quickly, and it should have been said that they were nothing to do with the Human Rights Act.

The Defence Committee did a very good report—I think the Minister was on the Committee at the time—called “Who guards the guardians? MoD support for former and serving personnel”. It is worth reading—I have read it, and it is a good report. The main issue in it is investigations, which we have been talking about throughout this Committee. It is very critical of the £60 million spent on IHAT, for example. There was no mention of it being anything to do with the Human Rights Act. It outlines in detail the chaos when IHAT was set up in 2010 by—I reiterate yet again—the coalition Government.

I would like to know what the justification is for having this measure in the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn said this morning, it potentially has huge implications for us.

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

Clause 11 introduces new factors that the court must consider when deciding whether to allow human rights claims relating to overseas military operations to be brought in the normal time—[Hon. Members: “We are on clause 12!] I am sorry; I got carried away. Hon. Members are right—it is clause 12.

The measures in this Bill about derogation are not intended to change the existing and very robust processes that the Government and Parliament follow if and when a decision to derogate has been made. The requirement to consider derogation merely ensures that all future Governments are compelled to consider derogating from the ECHR for the purpose of the specific military operation. It is worth saying that the only change that we are bringing about in this Bill is the requirement to consider, rather than leaving it as an option. It is not actually a derogation; it is a requirement to consider a derogation and prove that it has been considered, not a derogation itself. That will ensure that operational effectiveness can be maintained by, for example, enabling detention where appropriate for imperative reasons of security. It is worth noting that the vast majority of the challenge that we face around lawfare has come from issues relating to detention.

Appropriate parliamentary oversight over derogation is already built into the Human Rights Act 1998. For the benefit of the Committee, I will spell out the existing obligations on the Government once they have made the decisions to derogate from any aspect of the European convention on human rights. The Human Rights Act requires that the Secretary of State must make an order designating any derogation by the UK from an article of the ECHR or a protocol thereof. The Secretary of State must also make an order amending schedule 3 of the Human Rights Act to reflect the designation order or any amendment to, replacement of or withdrawal of the designation order. A designation order ceases to have effect if a resolution approving the order is not passed by each House of Parliament 40 days after it is made, or five years from the date of the designation order, unless extended by order under section 16(2) of the Human Rights Act, or if it is withdrawn, or if it is amended or replaced.

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

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair again, Mr Stringer. I wonder whether the Minister can help me out, because I am a little confused. The Government’s own memorandum states:

Clause 12 does not require derogation nor does it make a decision to derogate more or less likely; derogation is still entirely dependent on the particular circumstances under consideration at the time.”

It is unclear what the practical point of the clause is and what difference it will make. In other words, what is the point of it?

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

The practical difference is that instead of it being optional to consider derogation from the ECHR, it becomes mandatory for Governments to demonstrate why they have derogated from the ECHR. It is much like in the prosecution setting, where we talk about factors to consider. Previously, people have said, “Well, they consider those anyway.” All we are doing is making it mandatory to prove that they have been considered, in order to demonstrate that the correct process has been gone through.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields is right. This will have no effect whatsoever. I suspect it has just been put in the Bill for a bit of window-dressing—to suggest that the Government are feeding red meat to those who want to be against the entire Human Rights Act. The Minister is feeding the bogeyman around the Human Rights Act.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence) 2:30 pm, 22nd October 2020

Of course it is not.

In addition to the requirements laid out in the Human Rights Act 1998, the Government must communicate a decision to derogate to the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, including details of measures taken and the reasons for taking those measures, and inform the secretary-general when derogations have ceased. Those existing measures provide for an appropriate level of parliamentary debate of a decision to derogate. Requiring a parliamentary debate on decisions to derogate ahead of time could undermine operational effectiveness.

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

The Government may have to make decisions quickly, meaning there simply will not be time for a debate.

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

Requiring a debate before an order is made may also result in discussion of operations that rely on an element of surprise. That would defeat the purpose of derogation in relation to overseas military operations, which should enhance operational effectiveness. I therefore strongly recommend that the amendment is withdrawn.

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Labour/Co-operative, Islwyn

I am not going to go on forever and I will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. It is interesting that the Minister has read his speech into the record like he used to, and his Whip told him to sit down. Can my hon. Friend think of an example that was so urgent for operational reasons that it would have to be rushed through on this basis? The Minister clearly did not want to give one.

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

I am happy to—for example, when the French conduct an operation in Mali and, without going too far, conduct counter-terrorism operations such as hostage rescue, whatever that may be, which will require them to detain in the country where there is not an agreement already, they will be required to derogate from ECHR compliance in order to make those detentions and those arrests.

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Labour/Co-operative, Islwyn

Does anyone else want to intervene now? I feel like a post box at the moment. With the amount of whys coming over my left shoulder, it was just like my four-year-old son asking me why all the time—I do not mean to offend my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham.

I hope this matter is revisited on Report. I believe the derogation is very important and, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, article 15 is so important. It is usually in states of emergency that derogation is asked for. That means it needs to be scrutinised in both Houses. I will withdraw the amendment at this stage, but I hope that we will revisit the issue on Report, when the Bill comes back to the Floor of the House. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.