The government has been urged to think again about a number of elements of the controversial Overseas Operations Bill, following a series of amendments being voted through this week.
Proposed changes backed by peers include an amendment to explicitly exclude service veterans from the six-year limitation on actions against the Ministry of Defence proposed in the bill.
Labour peer Lord Tunnicliffe said his change would reintroduce the ‘normal approach’ to limitation: if a personal injury claim was not brought within three years then the court would be able to extend the allowed time indefinitely. He accused the government of being ‘suspicious’ of civil claims from troops against the MoD and said this bill was designed to provide additional hurdles. The House of Lords, during third reading of the bill on Tuesday, voted by 300 to 225 in favour of Tunnicliffe’s amendment, which will now go back to the commons.
The so-called six-year longstop has been criticised by lawyers representing service personnel who say veterans will be denied their legal rights. The government has insisted that only a small number of claims would be affected, pointing out that 94% of claims from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were made within six years.
Crossbencher Lord Stirrup said this point was irrelevant, telling the chamber: ‘To argue that only a small number of service personnel would suffer injustice does not seem to me a respectable position for a government to take at any time, let alone in a bill that is supposed to provide support and reassurance to those people.’
The amendment to take out service personnel from the six-year longstop effectively replaced other amendments which would have removed the new limit altogether.
Critics in the debate pointed out this created a two-tier system for claims, where veterans were allowed more time to bring their case than civilians affected by overseas operations. Labour peer Baroness Chakrabarti said it was ‘levelling down’ to deny overseas civilians the same protections.
MPs will have to consider other amendments passed in the House of Lords, includiung an amendment to ensure that the presumption against prosecution does not apply to war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide or torture.
Peers also backed a cross-party amendment seeking to ensure investigations are timely and effective, and to stop ‘delays, shoddy investigations and reinvestigations’ from casting ‘a shadow over serving members of the armed forces and veterans’.