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The Overseas Operations Bill fails to protect our armed forces

4 min read

Ministers treated any criticism to the Overseas Operations Bill as hostile opposition. As a result it fails to protect British forces personnel serving overseas from vexatious litigation and repeat investigations.

Today MPs will once again deal with amendments the Lords have sent back to the Overseas Operations Bill. The government’s 80-seat Commons majority means they will force this through but the Bill is a case study in how government can win their legislation but lose the argument.

This was legislation billed as protecting British troops from vexatious legal claims and repeat investigations, in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a flagship of the 2019 Conservative election, one of only four pledges to legislate in their manifesto.

Yet last week not a single Tory Peer spoke in favour of the government and against the amendments, while only one in five Tory MPs who spoke was willing to fully back their Ministers rather than urging further changes on them.

As Parliament ties up the last of this first legislative session following the 2019 election, it’s worth reflecting on how Ministers came to be so isolated. In these final Parliamentary weeks, the government has faced a chorus of criticism from Liberty to the Royal British Legion and Lords amendments all with strong cross-bench backing and the most senior military members of the Lords signed up.

With a manifesto mindset, Ministers tried to reduce this important cause to the crude politics of their ‘culture wars’. They claimed the debate was binary and about taking sides to defend either British troops or international human rights. In truth, it’s important to stand up for both.

The Bill was badly flawed but I wasn’t willing to have Labour oppose it at the outset in the Commons second reading as we would have put ourselves at the margins of the debate and denied there was a long-running problem to fix. Most important of all, we would have disqualified ourselves from setting out to forge a consensus on the changes needed to make this Bill serve the best interests of British troops, British justice and Britain’s standing in the world.

It still fails to incorporate a duty of care for forces personnel faced with allegations, investigation and litigation

I believe Labour had a duty, as the official opposition, to try to make this legislation fit for purpose as a new legal framework for this country when we have in future to commit our servicemen and women to conflict overseas.

This has been an object lesson for all Ministers and wannabe Ministers on how not to manage a Bill.

By refusing to recognise that no government ever gets any legislation completely right or that Parliament is doing its proper job in seeking to test and amend, Ministers closed their minds completely to changes urged by all sides that could have made this flawed Bill better. They treated any criticism as opposition and all opposition as hostile.  

Important eleventh hours concessions have been secured, including yesterday when the government accepted all war crimes should be excluded from the Bill’s presumption against prosecution after five years. But this legislation is still far from doing what it says on the tin: to protect British forces personnel serving overseas from vexatious litigation and repeat investigations.

Until yesterday, it exposed British troops to the risk of prosecution in the International Criminal Court. Had it been in force, it would still not have helped troops in 99% of the 4000-plus allegations arising from Iraq and Afghanistan, because it only relates to the prosecutions process, not to investigations or reinvestigations.

It still breaches the Armed Forces Covenant, penalising rather than protecting forces personnel and veterans by uniquely blocking any negligence claims or compensation against the MOD after six years. It removes current rights to justice that UK-based troops and all civilians will continue to have to make injury claims against their employer. Having paid out more than £80 million last year in compensation to forces personnel, the one clear beneficiary from this Bill will, of course, be the MOD itself.

And it still fails to incorporate a duty of care for forces personnel faced with allegations, investigation and litigation, who consistently say that they’re cut adrift by their chain of command and abandoned by the MOD with no legal, pastoral or mental health support.

MPs on all sides and in both Houses wanted the same thing of this legislation: to protect British troops and protect British values. By maintaining this as a matter of party politics, rather than the national interest, Ministers now end up with legislation that fails the very people they pledged to protect: our armed forces serving the country in conflicts overseas.


John Healey is the Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne and shadow defence secratery.

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