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The government's "war on lawfare" will protect defence people from the cycle of vexatious historic claims

Chelsea Pensioners at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to mark the 50th anniversary of the UK Armed Forces' deployment in Northern Ireland, August 2019 | PA Images

4 min read

Vexatious allegations can haunt our service men and women for years. The Overseas Operations Bill will introduce a triple lock to protect them, without placing the UK Armed Forces above the law

The government’s Overseas Operations Bill will be read for a second time in the House of Commons today. To know why this is so important, you just have to speak to those veterans who have been hounded by historic allegations for years. I’ve had those conversations and it’s appalling to see and hear how lives have been blighted by the spectre of persistent reinvestigation. I’ve spoken to brave individuals who’ve had their hard-won reputations shattered. Others have had their mental health ruined after living for years under a cloud of suspicion. And I know of families who have been torn apart by the fear of hearing another knock on the door.

I got into politics to end this scandal and I know the prime minister shares my ambition. So we’re going to war on lawfare to make sure the next generation don’t suffer the same “vexatious” fate as my generation.

But it’s important to be really clear about what the Bill will and won’t do. It will provide our servicemen and women with greater certainty by creating a better legal framework for dealing with allegations of misconduct during any future overseas conflicts. It will recognise the unique burden and pressures placed on personnel during overseas operations. 

And it will introduce a triple-lock. First, a presumption against prosecution once five years have elapsed from the date of an incident (this is a presumption, not a bar). Secondly, a requirement that prosecutors give particular weight to the adverse effect that overseas operations can have on service personnel, as well as the public interest in the prompt and final resolution of cases that have already been investigated and where there is no compelling new evidence. Thirdly, it will require the consent of the Attorney General before a prosecution can proceed after five years have elapsed. The Bill will also reduce uncertainty by introducing a time limit for bringing civil claims against the MoD in relation to overseas operations. 

It is not a barrier to justice. It is not an amnesty. It is not a statute of limitations. Nor will it prevent allegations of wrongdoing more than 5 years old from being investigated

The Government will introduce separate legislation to address the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland in a way that focuses on reconciliation, delivers for victims, and ends the cycle of reinvestigations into the Troubles in NI that has failed victims and veterans alike. We remain committed to moving this forward as quickly as possible.

So we know what the Bill will do, but what it won’t do is legitimise criminal behaviour. It is not a barrier to justice. It is not an amnesty. It is not a statute of limitations. Nor will it prevent allegations of wrongdoing more than 5 years old – including war crimes and torture – from being investigated and, where appropriate, prosecuted.  A decision on whether to prosecute for such crimes will continue to be for the independent prosecutor to make.

The UK is well-known for its leading role in the promotion and protection of human rights, and for the unreserved condemnation on the use of torture. We remain committed to our obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, including the UN Convention Against Torture. Nothing in the Bill changes this position. 

Finally, this Bill does not put our Armed Forces above the law. Whenever the Armed Forces embark on operations outside the UK, our people and their chain of command are bound to abide by the criminal law of England and Wales, as well as international humanitarian law as set out in the Geneva Conventions. The overwhelming majority meet those expectations and serve with great distinction. As for the tiny minority who fall short, we will rightly hold them fully to account.

Instead, this Bill serves a different purpose. For years, those who did their duty defending our nation found themselves exposed to a multi-million pound industry of claims and subject to repeated investigations.

In 21st century Britain, no-one – especially those who have laid their lives on the line for our country – should then have to have their service and loyalty unendingly questioned. We can’t rewrite the past. But we can make sure there’s a better future on offer for those who serve their country.

So when I get up at the despatch box today I’ll be laying out the case for why our Overseas Operations Bill will change lives for the better. I can’t think of a single MP that doesn’t have a community of veterans in their constituency. We have to be able to look them in the eye. This Bill is an unprecedented opportunity to give them the protections they need. As I’ll be saying to my Parliamentary colleagues, let’s make sure we don’t waste it.


Johnny Mercer is Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View and minister for defence people and veterans 

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