“A bill aimed at curbing vexatious claims against troops is “dangerous and harmful” to the reputation of Britain’s armed forces and the safety of UK personnel, the prime minister was warned late last week in a letter from a handful of former generals and MP’s and that are urging Mr. Johnson to reconsider the “ill-conceived” proposed legislation which will return to the committee stage of the House of Commons later this week.
Former head of the armed forces, Field Marshal Charles Guthrie together with the current Chief of the Defence Staff together with General Sir Nick Parker, former commander of land forces, former attorney-general Dominic Grieve sent a letter to Downing Street last Thursday raising concerns about the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill.
The long awaited proposed new legislation seeks to limit false and historical allegations against personnel via a “triple lock” of measures, including a statutory presumption against criminal prosecution five years after an alleged crime.”
Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 ‘Today Programme’ on Friday General Parker said that while “I absolutely welcome anything that is going to address the unfair and malicious claims that are made against our people I am remain concerned that the process which is in place at the moment is moving very quickly and without enough careful consideration of the potential unintended consequences it may have. I am worried” he said “that it looks as if, where it focuses on prosecutions, it is placing conditions that are unnecessary and risk us being seen in the international community as setting double standards.”
Defending the concerns raised by the former general, Veteran Minister Johnny Mercer responded saying that “Yes, of course, the legislation focuses on the vexatious claims, part of it, but there is a very clear part one in the Bill that deals with bringing integrity to a process that has destroyed the lives of some of our finest people” and that “People will be prosecuted after five years where evidence exists. All we are doing is increasing the integrity of the process so that prosecutors have to consider whether it is in the public interest” adding that “I have spent four or five years dealing with people who have been through these investigations, not the generals at the top of the organisation, but, in fact the people who have been genuinely affected by this. The major part of that process is making sure that this industrial level claims is stopped because it is so grossly unfair.”
My own view on this is simple – what is proposed is significantly better than what we have got and that if it is found over the next couple of years that the Bill is deficient then the government will need to respond. The important point is that at long last measures proposed will in my view bring integrity to a process that has caused angst and, as the Mercer has himself said, “destroyed the lives of some of our finest people”
The second part of the Bill amends the existing “Limitation Act 1980” and proposes to limit the court’s discretion to disapply time limits for personal injury actions brought by service personnel harmed on foreign tours.
Critics of this section of the Bill claim that the proposed change and that introduces a six-year claim limitation period further reduces veterans’ rights to bring civil claims against the Ministry of Defence.
Rejecting that the proposals in the Bill reduce soldiers’ ability to make claims in Parliament back in July, Mr. Mercer told the House of Commons debate that the limitation issue is misunderstood on the basis that “it is not from the point of when the injury happened or the incident that caused the injury; it is from the point of awareness or the point of diagnosis’. He also reminded that the existing armed forces compensation scheme already has a seven-year limit on it and also limits the time in which claims can be brought meaning that the proposed new legislation is only a minor change.
However, at that time, he did accept that conditions such as PTSD and hearing loss could develop years after active service and he was at pains the stress that the proposed legislation would not stop veterans claiming for issue that occurred well after active service was completed. He also rejected the notion that individuals would be diagnosed and choose not to do anything about it for many years.
While the underlying reason for the proposed Bill remains to reduce the possibility of armed forces personnel facing unfair and malicious claims and being prosecuted for alleged crimes committed during overseas operation through a time limiting process, it does not stop prosecution where undoubted evidence exists – and neither should it.
CHW (London – 21st September 2020)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785