Statement on the Overseas Operation Bill (2019-21)

I have been contacted by many constituents who are deeply concerned about the Government’s Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill.

The government says that the Overseas Operations Bill has been introduced to address the issue of prosecution of former members of the armed forces in relation to events which took place whilst on service overseas, many years after the period of service.  There is certainly some evidence that this is an issue which needs to be addressed.  However, the Bill as currently drafted does not deal with the core objective effectively, and introduces a range of measures which are deeply concerning.  This is an appalling piece of legislation which is deeply flawed.

If passed in its current form, the Overseas Operations Bill would introduce a presumption against prosecution for members of the armed services after five years, including for abhorrent, vicious, and illegal actions such as torture and other war crimes. In the opinion of many legal experts, the legislation as currently drafted would seriously and fatally undermine Britain’s adherence to its treaty obligations under the Geneva Conventions. Whilst I am glad to see that sexual violence is exempt from the bill, there is no principled reason why other offences, including torture, should not be regarded as equally grave and therefore be similarly exempted from the five-year presumption against prosecution.

This Bill radically undermines the ability of the UK to take a leadership role on global human rights issues like torture, and risks our long-standing international reputation as a nation which unequivocally supports human rights across the globe. Human rights organisation Liberty has stated that ‘If passed unamended, this Bill will result in the effective decriminalisation of torture and other grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions after five years’. 

The United Kingdom has an all-too-recent dark past when it comes to torture: the 2018 Intelligence and Security Committee report identified hundreds of cases in which UK forces were complicit in mistreatment overseas. I am completely clear that there should be no time-limit on the investigation and prosecution of such abhorrent crimes.

Additionally, I am deeply concerned that much of this Bill will also damage the standing of the armed forces – the very institutions the Government claims it is seeking to protect. Providing effective legal immunity after five years is an insult to the professionalism and competency of British troops and the high standards to which they should quite rightly be held.

The Bill also prevents members of the armed forces – who are prevented in law from joining a union – from properly holding the Ministry of Defence to account. By blocking any injury or negligence claim against the Ministry of Defence if they miss a six-year deadline, this Bill inhibits the ability of veterans to receive their own justice in cases of death or personal injury. British troops who serve in dangerous situations should have the same workplace protections as any other workers and should not be blocked from seeking redress when they are let down by the Ministry of Defence or government ministers.  

This Bill is too important – and its consequences far too damaging – to allow it simply to be pushed through Parliament un-amended, by a Government with an 80-seat majority.  It is therefore the duty of the Labour Party, with our long history of support for human rights, to work and organise to amend the Bill.  In the current Parliament the only possibility of tackling the many injustices included in the Overseas Operations Bill is by working to build a cross-party consensus of opposition to the most damaging parts of the Bill and support for amendments to address them. 

It is not too late for the Government to think again about the best way to protect service personnel from vexatious litigation while also ensuring that those who commit serious crimes during operations are prosecuted and punished appropriately. If you would like to understand Labour’s position in greater detail, I would recommend reading Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, John Healey’s opening speech in the Second Reading Debate, which can be found here:

Please rest assured that along with Labour colleagues I will seek to hold the Government to account for this poorly drafted, damaging piece of legislation. I am committed to upholding the values on which I was elected, and will fight to ensure that torture and other war crimes are not decriminalised.