Overseas Operations Bill: Setback for government in Lords

The government has offered a further concession to critics over controversial legislation to protect British troops fighting overseas from vexatious legal claims.

Monday, 26th April 2021, 5:40 pm
Tory MP and former Army captain Johnny Mercer

Ministers agreed last week to ensure genocide, crimes against humanity and torture were excluded from future legal safeguards in the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill.

Facing a further possible defeat on the issue at the hands of peers in the dying days of the parliamentary session, the government moved yesterday to ensure war crimes are excluded from the presumption against prosecution as well.

Critics had argued that without the changes the Bill risked damaging the UK’s international reputation and could lead to service personnel ending up before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

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Defence minister Baroness Goldie said the government had listened to the “very real concerns” of MPs and peers about exclusions from the future legal safeguards and agreed to rectify this “clear omission” from the legislation.

She said ministers had further reflected on the concerns in both Houses and would table a further amendment to also exclude war crimes.

Labour former defence secretary Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, who had tabled a fresh amendment to the Bill, welcomed the Government’s decision to listen to the “chorus of criticism”.

Lord Robertson, who also previously served as secretary general of Nato, said there was a “genuine sense of relief” that ministers had changed their minds.

Later, the government suffered a defeat on the Bill as peers backed an amendment to provide a statutory duty of care to service personnel involved in investigations or litigation arising from overseas operations.

Voting was 312 to 243, majority 69, for an amendment backed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The Bill will now have to return to the Commons where ministers will have to decide whether to use the government’s majority to overturn it.

Last week, defence minister Johnny Mercer resigned from the cabinet, claiming a pledge to protect troops who served in Northern Ireland – in the same way as those who served overseas – was not being honoured.