All 1 Nadia Whittome contributions to the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill 2019-21

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Tue 3rd Nov 2020
Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill
Commons Chamber

Report stage & 3rd reading & 3rd reading: House of Commons & Report stage & Report stage: House of Commons & Report stage & 3rd reading

Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill

Nadia Whittome Excerpts
Report stage & 3rd reading & 3rd reading: House of Commons & Report stage: House of Commons
Tuesday 3rd November 2020

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill 2019-21 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: Consideration of Bill Amendments as at 3 November 2020 - (large print) - (3 Nov 2020)
Imran Ahmad Khan Portrait Imran Ahmad Khan (Wakefield) (Con)
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During last year’s general election campaign, the protection of our service personnel and veterans was the biggest issue that I encountered on the doorsteps of Wakefield, beside Brexit. From tackling the morally bankrupt state of homelessness among the veteran population to ensuring that they are protected from vexatious litigation claims, I am proud to stand behind 4,200 veterans in my constituency and will continue not only to represent and defend them but to champion their causes and those of their families, and to ensure that they receive fair treatment by our society, to which they have given so much.

It is the Conservative party that has always championed and defended our service personnel and veterans. It is the Conservatives who have consistently defended Trident and raised defence spending above the NATO target of 2%. This Bill is doubling down on our beliefs and commitments. It is designed to provide our service personnel and veterans with the protections needed from vexatious claims and repeated investigations.

We should, of course, hold our armed forces servicemen and women to the highest standards. For that exact reason, the Bill does not prevent prosecutions where genuine wrongdoing is found to have occurred. The five-year threshold for prosecutions means that victims have a long window in which to put forward their allegations. As I understand the Bill, the threshold does not apply in cases that are exceptional and begins only from the point of knowledge, such as in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Those on the Opposition Benches unfairly claim that the Bill legalises torture and war crimes committed by service personnel, risks undermining our justice system and defends only the Ministry of Defence. That is ridiculous and demonstrably false. Credible investigations can and will be pursued when there is either new compelling evidence or, as I mentioned, in exceptional circumstances, such as cases of sexual offences.

For almost 20 years, before I was returned to this place, I often found myself in diverse places spanning four continents, living and working alongside our courageous armed forces. I am committed to ensuring that those who have, continue to or will gallantly serve the United Kingdom in our armed forces should not have to face repeated investigations years after they have served on operations. The Bill advances the protection of our service personnel, but not to the detriment of victims or at the cost of our revered justice system. I urge all Members from all parties to support the passage of the Bill.

Nadia Whittome Portrait Nadia Whittome (Nottingham East) (Lab)
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Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the former deputy legal adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, says that the Bill calls into question the UK’s commitment to a “rules-based international system”. As of today, nearly a dozen United Nations human rights special rapporteurs and experts have declared that the Bill will violate the

“UK’s obligations under international humanitarian law, human rights law and international criminal law”.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission says that it is

“profoundly concerned by the risk to human rights that this Bill poses.”

The Judge Advocate General of the Armed Forces says that the Bill risks bringing

“the UK armed forces into disrepute”.

How can the Minister justify sticking his fingers in his ears in the face of such grave concerns voiced by legal, defence and human rights experts? Why is this legislation so out of step with the similar legislation of allied countries such as the US and Canada?

I am proud of the strength and unity of Labour’s opposition to the Bill on final Reading, because our party has a record of championing human rights and fighting for the dignity of workers and for the rule of law—everything that the Bill flies in the face of. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) said at the time of the recent publishing of the Human Rights Joint Committee report, it is not the drafting of the Bill that is the problem, because it is perfectly drafted in accordance with the policy; it is the policy itself that is the problem.

This Bill is rotten to its core. Speaking of the Human Rights Joint Committee report, the Minister was unable to explain which vexatious prosecutions would have been stopped by the Bill, so perhaps he can tell us today. No? I didn’t think so, because the answer is none. What is particularly disrespectful and distasteful is this Government’s disingenuous claim that anyone who opposes the Bill is anti-armed forces. I suppose that includes the Royal British Legion, too. A Government source, in characteristically anonymous fashion, told The Guardian this morning that Labour’s stance on the Bill

“confirms their long-held disdain for armed forces personnel”.

Let me tell Conservative Members what disdain for our armed forces personnel looks like. It is shoving through this Bill, despite concerns from the Royal British Legion and senior military figures; it is breaching the armed forces covenant; it is stripping soldiers of their employment rights; and it is rewarding new recruits with poverty pay, with one of the lowest salaries in the public sector at just over £15,000 a year. For more than 300 years, torture has been illegal in this country. The Bill would overturn that principle, and that would be a moment of national shame. So tonight, as a matter of pride, I will be voting against this Bill—this irredeemable anti-veteran and anti-human rights piece of legislation—for the second time.

Stuart Anderson Portrait Stuart Anderson
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I am sure that I will have a different view to the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome). I find myself in a surreal place, because I have gone full circle. I once moaned, as a soldier, about not enough being done in this House for the armed forces. Now, I am contributing to legislation that I honestly believe will have a positive impact on our armed forces.

Looking back at the different overseas operations I have served on and being able to bring those experiences to the House has been a huge honour. I was fortunate enough to speak in the first debate about what I did on operations, and also to sit through several weeks of scrutiny on the Bill Committee. I have learnt a lot during this process, and gained a greater understanding of the huge complexities involved in bringing legislation through this House. It is clear that the Minister for Defence People and Veterans has done so much to get the Bill here, and I pay tribute to all the work he has done to get it to this stage.

When I look at all that is said in this House in support of our armed forces, I scratch my head and wonder why it has taken this long to bring this legislation to the House. I have looked back and reflected to try to find out why this was the case. When I joined the Army straight from school several decades ago, the armed forces were not popular. We were not high on satisfaction ratings. We were not allowed in any of the places in the towns where we were posted. We were restricted from most places we went to. People did not come out into the streets and clap for the armed forces, so maybe it would not have been a popular decision to bring a Bill such as this to the House at that time. This has quite rightly changed now, and people do support our armed forces. Maybe that is why people are now saying so much about the forces that they have not said in the past. In this House, you cannot move for support for our troops, yet it is only now that this Bill is being brought forward.

I genuinely think that there is honest support across the House for our troops, and that all Members want the best for them. However, words do not protect our troops. We need to go further, and action is what is needed. As MPs, if we suffer a bad day, we hit the headlines. We might have a media campaign against us, someone might put graffiti on our office or we might end up having harassment. None of that is right, but it passes. It does not change our lives forever. However, when someone is serving on overseas operations, a split second can change their life forever when that shot is fired, that improvised explosive device is set off or that rocket comes into their base when they are asleep. A limb is lost. They witness a friend being killed. Ultimately, people lose their lives.

After an overseas operational tour, something is left on that battlefield. You never come back the same. The time for words has passed. We now need to support our armed forces, and we need to do so by supporting the Bill.