James Sunderland examines the Lords Amendments to the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill

James Sunderland examines the Lords Amendments to the Bill and supports moves to exclude more serious crimes such as torture, genocide and crimes against humanity from the five-year rule.

James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). It would not be right to talk about the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill without mentioning my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). While the circumstances surrounding his departure are regrettable and sad to me, I wish to commend him for his fantastic contribution, hard work and passion. I cannot think of a single Minister who has given so much of himself, worn his heart on his sleeve or driven his cause harder. We now have legislation in place in an area where previously we had none, and I want to issue to my hon. Friend a public and heartfelt thank you on behalf of all the veterans community.

I would also like to welcome the new Minister for Defence People and Veterans, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), to his place. As my friend and neighbour in Aldershot, he is perfectly placed to take on challenges ahead. He has done his time in the Whips Office, he has done his time in uniform and he is also a veteran. He is the perfect combination.

Bob Stewart 

While my good friend is blowing smoke up the backside of the new, excellent Minister, I have to say that I have a real worry. In the Ministry of Defence, we are now stuck with two woodentops and one black mafia, with two officers from the Scots Guards and one from The Rifles. I am a bit worried about where the rest of us will fit in.

James Sunderland 

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention; he has stolen my thunder, because I have a similar theme. As a long-standing member of the new Minister’s association in Aldershot and a former commanding officer of a proud regiment in Aldershot, I will be keeping a close eye on him while supporting him as best I can. I know that Aldershot will be very proud of him.

I am a bit concerned that, as my good friend, the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), mentioned, the MOD has not two but three infantry officers at the helm. My admiration for Jeremy Quin, the procurement Minister, goes up by the day. [Interruption.] No, he is not an infantry officer. As the veritable quartermaster for the MOD, my good friend Jeremy will, I know, keep an eye on any daring adventures and keep them in check within the MOD.


Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)

Order. For the sake of good order, we refer to Members using their constituency.

James Sunderland 

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The point is well made and well taken.

I made it clear on Second Reading that the Bill is a good Bill. I voted it through because it was the right thing to do. My view has not changed, despite the Lords amendments that have been introduced. People would be amazed by the hysteria and shock in my inbox from people attacking the Bill from every angle. But I want to make something absolutely clear. The supposition in some quarters that British troops are predisposed to wantonly commit war crimes in operations, or that the UK has given them a green light or a get-out-of-jail-free card is absurd. The MOD already has one of the most effective and robust service justice systems in the world, and I can tell the House as someone who has served on eight operational tours that we have the best-led and best-trained soldiers in the world.

We have a great record in this area and nothing will change. That is why I am less worried about the exclusion of war crimes. The presumption against prosecution does not affect in any way the UK’s ability to conduct investigations or prosecutions. It is a higher threshold, not a bar. However, in deference to those who spoke so eloquently, both on Second Reading and on Lords amendment 1, and the views of many in this place, I note that the MOD is seeking to exclude more serious crimes such as torture, genocide and crimes against humanity from the five-year rule, which I welcome.

Lords amendment 2 sets out a new process for investigations. It introduces timelines for them and gives a direct role for prosecutors in investigations. Personally, I do not like the phrase, “artificial timelines for the progress of investigations”, or the power of the Judge Advocate General to intervene. Furthermore, the limitations in the amendment do not apply in civilian life to police force investigations, meaning this would create an anomaly. I am therefore comfortable with the Government’s position and I urge the House to reject the amendment.

Lords amendment 3 removes from the Bill the duty to consider derogation from the convention. The Government have noted that article 15 of the European convention on human rights provides that states may temporarily suspend relevant human rights obligations. The removal of clause 12 would not prevent the Government from making a conscious decision when committing armed forces to overseas operations. I am therefore comfortable, as we maintain the capability to deploy soldiers abroad and derogate, that we are in the right place. So, again, I support the Government’s position on Lords amendment 3.

Lords amendment 4 excludes action brought against the Crown by serving or former service personnel from the limitation measures introduced by part 2 of the Bill. The impact of new limitation periods on the ability of service personnel to make claims will be minimal. The longstops in part 2 have been introduced to offer greater legal certainty, as well as greater certainty to service personnel. So I agree again that the amendment should be opposed.

Amendment 5 requires the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament, within six months of the Bill receiving Royal Assent, a duty of care standard in relation to legal, pastoral and mental health support provided to service personnel involved in investigations or litigation arising from overseas operations; it also requires an annual report. As someone who knows, I can tell the House that service personnel are entitled to legal support at public expense when they face criminal allegations and civil claims. Legal support is also available when people are required to give evidence at inquests, to inquiries and in litigation. In addition, the Armed Forces Bill is bringing the armed forces covenant into statute, and medical support available to all soldiers and veterans is unrivalled. And let us not forget mental health. The Government are now throwing money at this problem, and we are getting better all the time. I agree with the Government that the amendment is neither viable nor necessary.

This is a good Bill, and the Government’s concessions today make it even better, but the rest of the Lords amendments, in my view, should be rejected.