Many constituents have written to me who are understandably concerned about the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill that had its Second Reading on Wednesday 23 September 2020. I can assure you that I do not support the Bill as it stands, for various reasons, which I will explain below.
I am calling for it to be substantially rewritten so that it protects both our international obligations to treaties and conventions and our armed forces.
I agree with the concerns that many constituents have raised, particularly in relation to the investigation and prosecution of the most serious allegations, including of torture and war crimes. I share your concerns. Sexual offences are excluded from the scope of the proposed legislation yet torture and war crimes are not. If the Bill stays as it is, this would in effect place such grave crimes on a lower level. They are all abhorrent.
Pressure is growing from both inside and outside of Parliament and campaign groups like Freedom from Torture and Survivors Speak Out, with whom I have a close relationship, are playing a crucial role.
We want major changes. The Tory government is unfortunately in possession of a large majority in the House of Commons, though not in the House of Lords. This means that we can only hope to sustain any amendments we might achieve at committee stage or in the House of Lords if we can bring significant numbers of Tories with us in the final stages in the Commons. That requires maintaining close working with a wide range of people and organisations.
We will be better placed to amend it in committee stage if we continue to work in collaboration with human rights organisations and veterans’ organisations alike.
Realistically that’s the only way to ensure any likelihood of success in persuading government MPs or ministers to change their minds and vote with us to change the Bill. The goal of ensuring that human rights are secured is too important to risk by making a gesture at the early stages of the Bill. I could not support the Bill but I also wanted to retain our ability to change it eventually. This mean abstaining at this stage and continuing to work with colleagues on all sides to try to change the Bill in the next stages and retain those changes in the final stages.
I understand people’s abhorrence for the Bill as it stands. This includes people who believe it has let down veterans as well as survivors of torture. My own abhorrence is so strong that I felt I had to take the difficult decision to prioritise increasing the potential to change it over the short-term gesture of voting against it.
As currently drafted the Bill utterly fails to preserve the principles of justice and human rights which our armed forces have done so much to defend. It would undermine the UK’s leadership role in the world. This highlights for me the disingenuous presentation of the Bill by the Minister responsible and I fear that his intentions are less about protecting armed forces and more about making political points.
Unamended the Bill would undermine Britain’s long-standing and unequivocal adherence to the Geneva Conventions, and other international treaties, by bringing in a presumption against prosecution after five years to cover torture and other war crimes. Ironically considering the government’s stated intentions, this would mean that the international criminal court in the Hague instead of being dealt with in our own British justice system.
It is not just our commitments to international law where the Bill falls short. The Bill as it stands could prevent British Armed Forces personnel from holding the Ministry of Defence to account when it fails to properly equip troops, or when it makes serious errors that lead to death or injury of British forces overseas. Even the Royal British Legion believes that the Bill may breach the Armed Forces Covenant.
This government has now shown repeatedly that they have no regard for international law but we will not stop pushing them to do the right thing.
Nothing is this Bill would fix the flawed investigations system that has failed victims and accused alike.
At Second Reading of the Bill, Labour Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey challenged the Government on many of the concerns you have raised.
As this Bill progresses through both the Commons and Lords, we are working with a wide range of specialist organisations, particularly Freedom From Torture, Amnesty and veterans’ associations, to push amendments to hold all war crimes to the same judicial standards, and guarantee troops retain their right to compensation claims when MoD failures lead to injury or death of our forces overseas. During the next stage, the committee stage when we debate the Bill line by line, Labour will be pushing amendments and working with campaigners to try to remedy the significant flaws I’ve listed.
Labour will fight for our troops and their right to justice from the MoD; and we will fight to protect our country’s reputation for upholding the rules-based international order that Britain has helped construct since the days of Churchill and Attlee.
Our Armed Forces are world-leading, and I will always stand up for them and for their role as a force for good at home and overseas. They set themselves the highest operational standards and expect the best from their service men and women.
The Bill’s Committee Stage is due to conclude by 22 October.
It is not too late for the Government to think again and make changes to the Bill to overhaul investigations and hold all war crimes to the same judicial standards.