The Overseas Operations Bill is designed to give service personnel and veterans the protections needed in prosecution cases. As you are aware, there is a presumption against prosecution over allegations that happened more than 5 years ago. The Bill makes clear that there are exemptions to the 5-year principle. If an exceptional case is brought forward, then it will be pursued. It also ensures that credible allegations are investigated and pursued where necessary, and that our Armed Forces will be protected from the vexatious claims and repeated investigations that so many have suffered in recent years.
The Bill will deliver the Government’s manifesto commitment to “introduce new legislation to tackle the vexatious legal claims that undermine our Armed Forces”, which will help to ensure essential legal protections for both Service personnel and veterans who have served on military operations overseas. The measures will help tackle vexatious claims and the cycle of reinvestigations against our Armed Forces, to whom we owe a vast debt of gratitude. It provides a better legal framework for overseas operations, by recognising the unique circumstances and the adverse effects that deployment on such operations can have, thereby reducing the uncertainty faced by our Service personnel and veterans.
In determining what measures to include in the Overseas Operations Bill, the government took account of the responses to last year's public consultation on proposed legal protections, and to the House of Commons Defence Committee's own inquiry into protecting veterans. The Government’s response to the consultation has been published here. The measures in the Bill are a proportionate solution to the problem. They strike an appropriate balance between victims’ rights and access to justice on the one hand, and fairness to those who defend this country on the other. The main tenets of the Bill are summarised below.
Firstly, it will introduce a Statutory presumption against criminal prosecution of current or former Armed Forces personnel for alleged offences committed on operations outside the UK more than 5 years ago. Under these provisions it will be "exceptional" for a Service person or veteran to face prosecution.
Secondly, to ensure that civil claims arising from overseas operations are promptly fairly dealt with, the Government are introducing a limitation longstop for some claims in respect of overseas military operations, and restricting the court’s discretion to extend the normal time limit for bringing civil claims for personal injury and/or death in relation to operations outside the UK by introducing additional factors for the court to consider. We are also introducing a limitation longstop for claims under the Human Rights Act (HRA) in respect of overseas military operations and restricting the court’s discretion to extend the normal time limit for bringing HRA claims in relation to operations outside the UK by introducing particular factors for the court to consider. Some fears have been raised that this may stop our own Service personnel and veterans making personal injury or HRA claims following Service abroad after 6 years.
It is important to note that the time limit will still be calculated from either the date of the incident, or from the date of knowledge. This means that for civil claims, conditions like PTSD, that may not be diagnosed until much later, the six years would start from the date of diagnosis. The time limit for HRA claims will be calculated as six years from the date of the act or 12 months from the date of knowledge if this arises more than six years after the date of the act. An impact assessment has been published which provides an analysis of Employer's Liability claims brought by current and former Service personnel. These changes to the time limits for bringing compensation claims and human rights claims are designed to stop our Service personnel and veterans repeatedly having to give evidence in relation to historical incidents.
Thirdly, we are introducing a duty on Government to consider derogating from certain rights in the European Convention of Human Rights in relation to significant military operations overseas. This provision will introduce a requirement for the Secretary of State to consider, in the case of significant operations, whether it is appropriate to derogate in light of the situation at the time. We believe these combined measures will create greater certainty for veterans and help reduce re-investigations and the number of claims service personnel and MOD will face.
Many will also be eager to ensure the equivalent protections of our veterans who served in Northern Ireland. Although this Bill cannot apply to operations within the United Kingdom, including those cases which took place during the Troubles, it is the first step in a wider package to ensure their equal treatment. Addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland's past will form the basis of separate legislation to be brought forward by the Northern Ireland Office. Rest assured that this remains an absolutely fundamental commitment for the Government.
I consider the conduct of Armed Forces personnel serving overseas with the utmost importance. I am proud of the fact the UK has some of the most committed and professional service personnel anywhere in the world, who not only adhere to the rule of law but promote it through the conduct of their operations. I have full confidence that this Bill ensures allegations of torture will continue to be investigated and prosecuted wherever and whenever there is sufficient evidence to do so. As you are aware, the Bill puts in place a statutory presumption against prosecution. This stipulates that once five years have elapsed from the date of an incident, there must be new and compelling evidence for a prosecutor to seek prosecution of a service person or veteran for an offence committed during an overseas operation.
I appreciate that some individuals wish to see offences related to torture also exempted from the Bill. However, I want to reassure you that it provides no impunity for torture and makes provisions for the prosecution of any service personnel found to have been involved in such acts. Under the Bill, serious offences, including of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, will still be prosecuted on the basis of the sufficiency of new evidence and whether a prosecution would be in the public interest. Furthermore, service personnel are subject to the criminal law of England and Wales, and a disciplinary framework through Service Law, and have a duty to uphold both, wherever they are serving in the world.