Sunday 5 December 2021

It now looks as if the Labour Party, which abstained from opposing the Overseas Operations Bill at Second Reading (and sacked three junior spokesmen for voting against the Bill at that stage), may vote against the Bill at Third Reading tomorrow 3 Nov 2020 if their tabled amendments are not successful.

A large number of cross-party amendments have been proposed by Labour, Liberal Democrat and Scottish National Party MPs - and by Conservatives. (BAFF members and registered supporters will already know that the federation has no party-political affiliation, and that BAFF never claims to speak for others beyond its own membership.)

 A list of notices of amendment can be seen here:  House of Commons - Notices of Amendments wef 30.10.2020

Labour's Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey MP argues in today's Guardian that 

... The closer people look at this legislation, the less they like it.

This is a dishonest and damaging bill that simply doesn’t do what it says on the tin: protect British troops in overseas conflicts from vexatious litigation and repeat investigations. Worse, it breaches the Armed Forces Covenant, risks British troops being dragged to trial before the international criminal court and does more to protect the Ministry of Defence than our armed forces personnel.

 Cross-party amendments put forward by David Davis, the former Conservative cabinet minister who served in the territorial SAS, and Dan Jarvis, the Labour MP who served in the Parachute Regiment in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, are supported by Andrew Mitchell, Ian Liddell-Grainger and Crispin Blunt, all Conservative MPs who served in the British Army.

MPs David Davis and Dan Jarvis have a piece in today's Times (02 Nov 2020: paywall) about the MoD's intention "to prevent acts of torture being prosecuted if they took place more than five years ago":

The “triple lock” in the bill would make it virtually impossible to prosecute acts of torture even where there was extensive evidence such acts took place. This would do grave damage to our armed forces’ standing and effectiveness.

We know that many BAFF members and registered supporters share with these MPs - and BAFF itself - their justified anger about repeated and vexatious claims and allegations involving service personnel and veterans. Davis and Jarvis went on to say:

The defence minister, Johnny Mercer, has said the bill will end the vexatious claims against serving and former military personnel. The bill does nothing of the sort, and the joint committee on human rights rightly noted this week that it in fact does “nothing to address the issue of repeated investigations”.

BAFF supported the stated aims of the Bill, and contributed supportively to the MOD's original consultation in 2019, but has expressed detailed reservations to the Bill as published.

The British Armed Forces Federation member who gave evidence to the Bill Committee made it clear that he disagreed with the proposed restriction on prosecution for torture,  while imposing no such limits on prosecution for sexual offences. This reflected consultation with a number of other BAFF members representing a very relevant range of operational experience, and we have received nothing but support for that line.

Of course those supporting the Bill as drafted are not in favour of torture, any more than those who have expressed reservations about the Bill or parts of the Bill are guilty of "failing to support the armed forces".

All the amendments put forward within the Bill Committee's consideration were either unsuccessful or withdrawn. The Bill now moves forward to its Third Reading in the House of Commons, following which it would go for consideration by the House of Lords.

At first sight most or all of the amendments now proposed by the wider House of Commons appear sensible, whether because they reduce the impression of impunity for serious crimes, or because they protect the interests of the vast majority who do their duty and obey the law.

One of the amendments, proposed by former Labour defence minister Kevan Jones MP,  would have directly reduced the risk of prosecution by applying to certain minor offences the same short time limit as for summary matters in civilian Magistrates' Courts, namely six months  from the time the offence was committed or discovered. Surely that would have improved the legislation.

The minister Mr Mercer has now reacted with anger to the Times article by MPs David Davis and Dan Jarvis, saying among other things that

They either don't understand the fundamentals of the issue or wilfully conflate claims with investigations.

Actually one of our criticisms of the MoD's past statements is that THEY conflated civil claims with criminal investigations, by using language such as "hundreds of prosecutions". That is not to underestimate the stress for personnel and veterans in being caught up in ANY process implying blame or error by them or comrades,  even if no criminal prosecution is at all likely.

As before we would welcome any further views from BAFF members. Please get in touch as soon as possible, using the site contact form, if you have any views on this article or anything else relating to the Overseas Operations Bill. We are very grateful for all feedback received to date.