Last week in Parliament, amidst the all the coronavirus statements, we had the Second Reading (that’s the first general debate and vote) of the Overseas Operations Bill.
This is the proposed law to protect our servicemen and women from multiple vexatious claims arising from their conduct when in combat. A couple of law firms have launched hundreds of compensation claims after recent conflicts, with individual servicemen being investigated multiple times for the same alleged offence.
Chester is a historic garrison city and many constituents are ex-servicemen, so I support efforts to protect them.
One reason we are so respected in the UK is because of our adherence the rule of law, which gives the UK a reputation for reliability and an influence far above our geographical and economic size.
Our soldiers, sailors and airmen are trusted too because they are disciplined, well trained, and respect the rule of law. It is one reason why UK service personnel are in such demand to train soldiers of other countries. Sadly there are occasions when individual servicemen fall well below this standard. It is right they face the law, because as well as the effect on their victims, they damage the standing of the whole of the British armed forces and indeed the whole country.
But the current Bill is badly flawed. It is not retrospective. So ministers have promised to protect ex-servicemen but this bill will only protect those in the future. Some crimes such as sexual offences are rightly excluded: legal action can be sought for these without limit. But other serious offences such as torture are not excluded so there will be a time limit for victims of torture seeking justice.
Most outrageously, the Bill places a time limit on servicemen’s claims against the Ministry of Defence. So, far from protecting the servicemen, it actually protects the government more.
The junior defence minister, Johnny Mercer, gave an awful performance in the Commons. When these defects were pointed out, he dodged them and tried to claim the Labour opposition was funded by ambulance-chasing lawyers, itself untrue. The minister had an arrogant swagger and he failed to listen to genuine concerns.
What to do when you agree with the principle of legislation but think this is the wrong solution? Well this was the Second Reading: there is a way to go yet. So I abstained with the hope the Bill can be amended and improved at the next stages. But with an arrogant minister like Johnny Mercer, I won’t hold my breath.